A few months ago, I gave a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago called “Cotton Picking, American Art and Thomas Hart Benton.” The Art Institute recently acquired Cotton Pickers (1945) — his last painting of the subject.
It was an exciting chance for me to research and develop ideas I’ve been fascinated with for years and to relate them to our upcoming exhibition, American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, which opens at PEM on June 6.
American artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was among the first prominent, modern artists to paint cotton picking, an American epic in its own right. From the 19th century, cotton picking imagery, usually tainted by racist stereotypes, appeared everywhere — Currier and Ives prints, photographs, sheet music, maps, coloring books, postcards, movies.
Cotton pickers appeared in influential movies of Benton’s era too, such as D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 silent epic, Birth of a Nation, which showed scenes of cotton picking on a southern plantation before the Civil War in the first 15 minutes of the film.
King Vidor’s talkie from 1929, Hallelujah, opens with Stephen Foster’s famous 1851 song “Old Folks at Home” accompanying images of cotton pickers in the fields.
Benton took up the subject in the late 1920s in such works as Cotton Pickers, Georgia (1928), acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1933.
Cotton picking is associated with insidiously timeless expressions of the “Old South,” of the world of plantations and slavery, and with histories of poverty and racism stemming from cotton picking and sharecropping practices during Jim Crow. That’s largely why today the topic of cotton picking can be uncomfortable, and seem strange, distant and even taboo. But cotton and how it was harvested remains integral to American culture, history and experience, even my own.
These 1986 pictures of my brother Eliot and me were taken on our drive home to New Orleans from Alexandria, Louisiana, in the center of the state.
The giant bins of mechanically-harvested cotton were an irresistible roadside attraction, but they were totally disconnected from the human experience of picking cotton, which is basically forgotten today. I remain struck by the sense of historical and social distance felt from King Cotton and its predominantly African American cotton pickers. For my lecture, I wanted to better understand some of the many reasons why cotton picking imagery basically disappeared after the 1950s.
I learned that mechanical harvesting all but took over by the 1980s and about the extensive efforts of the cotton industry during the last 50 years to remake and re-brand itself. The widespread embrace today of cotton as a comfortable, desirable fabric disassociated with how it was once hand harvested predominantly by black cotton pickers began with the introduction of the Seal of Cotton in 1973.
It continued with related ad campaigns. The most successful was the 1998 TV commercial that aired a new jingle, “The Fabric of Our Lives,” which country music star Hayden Panettiere recently re-recorded.
Today, the fiber is marketed as a luxury fabric in glossy ads for Supima cotton.
The contrast between cotton as a feel-good fabric in our minds now and cotton picking by hand as a vanished way of life in America then is stark, even though Hollywood brought cotton picking back into our imaginations in Twelve Years a Slave, which won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2014.
The aesthetic sophistication of director Steve McQueen’s shots of actors playing slaves picking cotton are inescapably related to the paintings and photographs of cotton picking I know from art history. And some of these powerful visual precedents are in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where I used to work.
Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers, painted in 1876, is an extraordinary painting that conveys the enormity of the labor required to pick vast fields of cotton.
Homer’s sympathetic portrayal of the strong and beautiful women honors the fortitude of black cotton pickers. LACMA also has a 1931 Benton watercolorof cotton pickers that is far more caricatured than Homer’s image and even than some of Benton’s other images, like his elegiac painting now in Chicago.
These disparities, and the fact that African American artists also addressed the difficult subject of cotton picking, sparked my curiosity and profound interest in this important subject as well as my efforts to represent this range in the collection through such acquisitions as Cotton Pickers (1947) by John Biggers and Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper (1952).
PEM’s upcoming exhibition also looks at Benton’s interests in American popular culture, film and history. I can’t wait to share his art with you.