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Some Thoughts on Writing about Plantations

February 28th, 2008 · 6 Comments

Alexis L. Boylan
assistant professor of art history,
University of Tennessee

I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to “Landscape of Slavery,” for several reasons. First off, to be included with such an esteemed group of scholars was an honor. We also represent a diversity of methodologies in regard to how we approach images. This is an amazing moment in terms of the study of art history, with certain scholars emphasizing the history that these images illustrate, while others emphasize the intentions of the artist, and some spend more time considering how the these images shape our culture and how audiences have absorbed or rejected the ideas about race, nationalism, and landscape offered by these objects. This catalogue encourages the reader to not only interrogate the images, but to also interrogate the questions we ask of images.

I was also excited to have the opportunity to write about Winslow Homer’s A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876. I had taught this painting for years and it is an image that always haunted me. I have yet to really decide for myself what has happened in this small room between these people. It is a typical work by Homer in the sense that he refuses to give simple, trite, or smug resolutions to the hard work of repairing the country after the Civil War. He wants the viewer to hover on the awkward, and heavy weight of history that all bodies carry.

I kept this painting in mind when I went recently to the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum in Atlanta, GA where Mitchell wrote her 1936 bestseller Gone With the Wind. The book itself was a bit of a fluke; Mitchell had an injury that limited her mobility and she wrote the book as a distraction to pass the time. And yet this book, perhaps more than other work of art, cemented a particular version of plantation life into the American psyche. It is a more simplistic image than the one Homer paints; in Mitchell’s South everyone knows their place and the enslaved stand by and protect their mistresses instead of staring at them coldly. But Mitchell’s work keeps the reader trapped in a made-up past, looping in a racist, nostalgic haze eternally. But Homer, I think, offers some hope. For while all of his figures stand almost frozen, we have to imagine at some point, soon perhaps, someone will have to make a move, the moment of tension will have to be broken, and we can all move forward again.

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Posted in: Art, Cultural Landscape, Plantation, Race Relations

6 Responses to 'Some Thoughts on Writing about Plantations'
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  • Jim Hutchisson said:
    on March 19th, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Professor Boylan, I am writing a piece for Charleston magazine on the exhibit as it comes to the Gibbes in May.I am interested in how this exhibit, particularly the juxtaposition of work by current African American artists and more traditional representations like those by Alice Smith and others, may help viewers understand the dynamics of race relations. I was struck by your comment that the Winslow Homer piece, “A Visit from the Old Mistress” is unreadable. I think the dominant sense is of uncertainty. The expressions are perhaps unreadable; I’m not sure. All the figures involved seem to be wary. The older white woman’s gaze might be construed as aloof, disapproving, certainly unfriendly. The black women seem not to be sure of what she is indicating to them in gaze and body language.
    In both these and the “Cotton Pickers,” the black figures dominate the canvas. Both are darkly “lit,” even the field scene in the “Cotton Pickers.” I would be interested in your comments on this and in geneal on the nature of plantation or slave iconography in paintings, then and now.

  • Diana Garnett said:
    on April 27th, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Of all the works of art I studied in my American Art class this semester, A Visit from the Old Mistress was one of my favorites, particularly because of its ambiguity. One of the interesting points my professor brought up when we studied it, was the gap between the old mistress in the slaves, which is repeated in Homer’s work Prisoners from the Front. In Prisoners, I read the gap as a mark of hostility and wariness, and I wonder if it can be read in the same way in A Visit from the Old Mistress.

  • crw said:
    on April 28th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    It is interesting to view Homer’s work against the backdrop of Gone with the Wind. This contrast seems to heighten Homer’s attention to the reality and awkwardness that existed in the wake of the Civil Ware between masters and former slaves. The mistress clearly assumes the stature of a guest, and she now stands while one of her former servants sits in a chair. A very interesting work to have in the Landscape of Slavery to contrast with other nostalgic works in the collection.

  • Lucy said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    While I agree that Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” certainly presents a romanticized, nostalgic vision of the antebellum South, I am not sure that I would characterize it as “looping in a racist, nostalgic haze eternally.” I don’t think anyone could view the film and say that the position Scarlett, her state, and her region are in at the end are even similar to that in which they were at the beginning–much less the same. Although the change was resisted, it did occur, and therefore I have to disagree with the notion that this nostalgic haze is an eternal cycle.

  • Becky Cooper said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    I think that this hits on a very important note: the interpretation of the South vs. the reality of the South.

    When Professor Robert Jackson of the UVA Media Studies department came to talk to our class he focused on the legacy of the South. His major argument was that any films, paintings, literature, or other art forms based on history reveal more about the period that they are produced than the actual historical context of the piece.

    Certainly what Professor Boylan is saying about Mitchell’s novel is true. We have certain interpretations about the South due to our current historical period. However, as times change so does our view on the past.

    For example, learning about the Antebellum Slave South today would be completely different than learning about it, let’s say, in my parents’ generation of the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, of course, Civil Rights was a hot topic and segregation was still a major aspect of the South. However, today, we have overcome major obstacles and we believe that we look at the past in a more open and unbiased perspective. It’s true, though, that in a couple of decades, my children are going to be thinking that they have progressed so much from our era. This goes to show that as time goes on, the current generation feels that they have progressed from previous generations.

    In Julian Bond’s class, History of the Civil Rights Movement at UVA, he discussed the progression of Civil Rights from Jim Crow to the present. Obviously, there are still occurrences of segregation and abuses of Civil Rights among African-Americans; for example, the Jena Six. However, the point is that, history changes according to the period that it is taught. The time period that art in the form of a movie, painting, book, or anything else is made is more of a reflection on the actual time period than that of the historical era.

  • Naomi said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    I especially noticed how the mistress’ face seemed more defined than her former slaves, and wondered what (if any) was the significance in that artistic decision.