As a companion to the Jules Breton harvesting scene I posted yesterday, today I’d like to share William Aiken Walker’s Cotton Gin, one of the many wonderful southern genre paintings I saw during my visit to the NOMA.
In contrast to Breton’s often Romantic portrayal of French peasants working the land, Walker’s paintings are admirable in their straight-forward depiction of poor African-American sharecroppers and their homesteads. During the American Civil War, Walker lived in Charleston and was enlisted in the Confederate Army, for which his artistic talent was used for drafting maps and battlefield plans. After the war, he moved to Baltimore where he made his living producing and selling paintings of emancipated slaves in the “Old South”.
Given that context, one might say there would be reason for controversy, but I believe his works present these people in a very respectful manner without dramatizing their plight or using the allegorical devices commonly found in genre work, which in this case would only serve as distraction. There's nothing ostentatious about these works, and I find that admirable. His narrative approach is simple, but the overall effect grants a sincere, authentic feel to his paintings, as if they accurately represent one's first-hand account of the scene.
Cotton Gin is great example of the incredible level of detail Walker captured from his subjects, including the many rural architectural structures scattered throughout the land. These works might very well qualify as important historical artifacts of life and culture in the South during the Reconstruction Era.
For more information on this artist’s work, please visit http://b-womeninamericanhistory19.blogspot.com/2009/12/slaves-dwellings.html
Behind the cut is a further detail of Cotton Gin.