Southern past art historians—specifically Stephanie Yuhl—have argued that

Southern
Impressionism and the Lost Pause

 

Impressionism arrived in the
American South during the 1880s through the auspices of painters of the
Barbizon and French Impressionists.1
After the Civil War, a herd of artists and collectors traveled to Europe to
train under the great European artists. Upon their return to the states, American
artists applied French avant-garde techniques to the American urban and rural
scene. The Impressionist style, where the artist paints the relationship
between the optical and the physical world, was among these modern techniques.
This new, modern painting technique arrived in the American South during its
most vulnerable phase. Devastated economically, psychologically, and
emotionally, Southerners lost a sense of identity after defeat in the Civil War
and Reconstruction. The emergence of the Impressionist technique and romanticizing
for the Antebellum South augmented the renewal of a paused Southern identity.
While past art historians—specifically Stephanie Yuhl—have argued that Southern
impressionism was designed to censor the region’s ugly history with a nostalgic
tone, Southern Impressionism was motivated to reinvigorate Southern identity
that had been paused in the aftermath of the Civil War.

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            Multiple
art historians have argued that Southern Impressionism created a nostalgic tone
which censored the region’s history. Stephanie Yuhl in “A Golden Haze of
Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston” argues the nostalgic tone of the
imagery fashioned the city’s
cultural identity out of the past, but in a discriminating embrace, placing
slavery, racism, and poverty in a “golden haze of memory.”23 Through this nostalgic tone,
Southern impressionists edified colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum history
while sanitizing the Civil War, its Lost Cause aftermath, and the slave trade
which perpetuated it.4 While it is undeniable that
Southern impressionism stirred up nostalgic sentiments, to say this was the
only consequence of Southern impressionism would not be correct. Southern
impressionists reinstated Southern identity and pride by resisting Northern
modernity and celebrating an exotic landscape.

In
the arts, the winners told the story of the Civil War. Northern artists, such
as Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, depicted the defeat of the South through
a lens designed for a Northern audience, such as Harpers’ Weekly. Alternatively, Southern artists were silent; their
artistic response suppressed until Reconstruction. Even though he was a born
Southern, Thomas S. Noble painted Southern guilt for their participation in
slavery, most notable in his painting The
Price of Blood.5 Another painter, William A. Walker, painted genre paintings
concerning sharecroppers, often drawing comparisons between slavery and
sharecropping. Walker’s paintings implied sharecropping was not an improvement
to slavery, suggesting Reconstruction failed to improve the African American
condition after the Civil War.  IA1 Noble
and William best exemplify how Southern art during the Reconstruction efforts
displayed hopeless images of the Lost Cause, Southern guilt for their
participation in the Civil War and slavery, and failed Reconstruction efforts.
Southern art from the Civil War until the arrival of Impressionism fell into an
artistic
depressionIA2 ,
where art was not designed to  Therefore,
the Civil War and Reconstruction
ceased Southern identity for almost a quarter-century—a phenomenon known as
“the Lost Pause.”

After an artistic depression,
Southern impressionist sought to redefine the regeneration of the South’s
artistic legacy as a means of reinvigorating Southern identity. The words of Southern impressionist Ellsworth
Woodward express this drive most vividly.6
Woodward
acknowledged Southern identity had collapsed in the aftermath of the Civil War,
but he famously exclaimed in response to an article in The Art Bulletin that the Southern spirit “did not suffer eclipse.”
IA3 Later
the founder of the Southern States Art League, Woodward voiced its mission:
“the movement is not centralized in any city or around any group of artists: it
is of the South, for the South and by the South, and its aim is to form in the
South an appreciation of what the South can and will create in the fine arts.”7 To do this, Southern impressionist first challenged the
North’s growing modernity and industrialization to develop a sense of
regionalism and exceptionalism.

First,
Southern impressionism resisted Northern pursuit of modernity.
Impressionism in the North, fueled perhaps by the Second Industrial Revolution,
painted the modern urban scene and the glamour of middle class Americans within
the newfound urban environment. Southern impressionists, however, were
preoccupied with the Southern landscapeIA4 ;
the few urban scenes painted by Southern impressionists captured Antebellum
architecture or religious emblems. Southern impressionist Willie Betty Newman8, despite her strong
associations with France, was a passionate advocate for painting the Southern
landscape. Newman believed “that the South is the natural and logical home of
all true art and that God intended it to be… nowhere do the flowers bloom more
beautifully, the trees and grass more luxuriant, nor the sunlight more
healthiful that in this fair Southland.”9
Southern impressionists pushed IA5 against
the urban world of the North by depicting elegant, traditional landscapes that
were the backbones of the Antebellum South.

            Charles Harvey Joiner’s10
Woods Scene conveys the notion that
Southern impressionists saw the rural South resistant to the pressing demands
of an increasingly urban, industrialized world. Joiner creates a grand sense of depth and perspective IA6 combined with the
subliminal suggestion of transcendental elevation in the viewing experience
through the rows of towering beech trees diminishing in size from foreground to
background to enhance the illusion of space and depth. IA7 This
sense of grand size romanticizes the Southern woods with a sense of
transcendence and sublimity. Furthermore, the metaphor of light and its shadow
adds to the grandiose of the rural setting. A common feature of Southern
impressionism art, the mysterious light in this painting symbolizes either the
presence of God, wealth, or, for some, liberty, hidden beneath the beech trees.

Lyell
Edwin Carr’s11 Black Mountain is another painting that underscores the South’s
resistance to modern civilization through its celebration on the traditional
agrarian farm. In Carr’s painting, Georgia’s highest peak hauntingly dominates
the vernacular barn and sole figure milking a dairy cow. A richly colored
bucolic scene and the light blue sky with a loose brushstroke gives the
painting a romantic mood that takes the viewer into the picturesque Southern
world and provides an escape from the urban world.

Southern impressionism reinvigorated
Southern identity through celebrating an exotic terrain unyielding to the
national pattern. Occurring at the same time as the introduction of
Impressionism, the moonlight and magnolias syndrome romanticized the Antebellum
South, especially the Southern plantation, a society built on the Southern
conception of honor, the wonderful sights of the unique Southern landscape, and
slavery.12
Impressionists painters shared an allure for the Southern landscape and, in its
mission to re-establish a Southern identity, portrayed the exotic Southern
landscape with a romantic mood. A mission that is expressed most clearly in the
works of Elliott Daingerfield.13
Daingerfield painted the Southern landscape with a specific emphasis for the
grandeur and timelessness of nature. His painting Moonlight Landscape displays the lush Southern land as the moon—a
symbol for time—rises. The moon’s light illuminating the mysterious Southern
land symbolizes the cycle of Southern pride. Though the moon fell following
defeat in the Civil War, inevitably it rose again to reignite the South with a
newfound sense of identity and honor, a revival of the Antebellum South. Following
the “moonlight and magnolias” syndrome, Southern impressionism argued progress
was not achieved from a linear model, but through a cyclical design.

Alfred Hutty’s14
paintings display Southern Impressionists’ celebration for an exotic landscape.
After Hutty first visited Charleston, SC in 1920, Hutty wired his wife back in
New York “Come quickly, have
found heaven.”15 Hutty’s paintings Magnolia Gardens, Path in a Southern Garden,
and Charleston Gardens include an
interplay between color and light to capture the liveliness and majesty of the
Charleston landscape. Charleston represented a city which had suffered war and
Reconstruction yet maintained its enhancement and Antebellum atmosphere. Hutty,
among other artists, sought to romanticize this anachronism through
impressionist paintings. His paintings echoed Vanderbilt Professor of English
and poet Donald Davidson: “the
lands were golden once; and for the dwellers there, self-reliant and not
without a power of their own, they are golden still.”16 

Paul Sawyier,17 a
renowned painter of the Kentucky School of Southern impressionism, is best
known for his painting of the Kentucky landscape, especially those along the
Kentucky and Dix Rivers. His painting, Kentucky
Fishing Scene, illustrates a fisherman and his son alongside a small
Kentucky creek on a warm summer morning. The details on the fisherman contrasts
the looser painting construction and mottled coloring of the foliage in the
background, a technique that embellishes the light reflecting the quiet stream.
The impressionist form captures the luminous ambiance of the gentle flowing
stream, producing a romantic quality to the painting. Sawyier’s art depicts the irony of
Southern impressionism. Originally, impressionism was a modern art style
designed to romanticize the new urban culture. The irony is that Southern
impressionism used the modern style to romanticize the traditional Antebellum
South.   IA8 

Ellsworth Woodward, a born
Northerner, became the patriarch of the of the New Orleans school of Southern
impressionism and a fervent activist for Southern art.18 His
oil painting, Rock-ribbed New England, concerns
the Louisiana flora he deeply appreciated. Using the French-inspired en plein air technique, Woodward passionately
applies paint into strident diagonals with a yellow base interrupted by vibrant
oranges, magentas, and violets. The impressionist cropping by the large
conifers in the background and the cloudy
skies behind gives the painting a sense of the internalized moment popular to
the Impressionist tradition.

The works of Daingerfield, Hutty,
Sawyier, and Woodward are just a few examples of the revival of art in the
South. Hundreds of artists, either inspired by their contemporaries or from the
French avant-garde, painted the Southern land and culture with impressionist
techniques that romanticized the Southern environment. The late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries saw a cultural renaissance in South, inspired from
the moonlight and magnolias syndrome and perpetuated by Southern impressionism.
Though
critics are correct in saying Southern impressionism censored the uglier
moments of Southern history—primarily slavery—it primary motive was to end the
Lost Pause and rekindle Southern identity. IA9