The Sentimental South in American Painting of the 1920s

The 1920s, celebrated as the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ continue live in the American imagination as an iconic and indulgent era that critics self-consciously commented on prior to its conclusion. Accordingly, “even before the end of the 1920s historians had begun to write the history of the decade and to offer characterizations that have lingered ever since,” including the enduring stereotype of the 1920s as a “time of reaction and isolationism induced by the emotional experience of World War I.”[1] Thus it is no surprise that many works of ‘Genre Art’ produced during the period, especially those concerning the American South, exude a certain nostalgia and sentimentality for more conventional and yet outdated American values and ways of life.

In the work of the Boston-based artist Alice Worthington Ball, for example, we see how she utilized the subject matter of the nineteenth century American southern plantation in order to exhibit her skill with the atmospheric, impressionist style. In “Sunday on the Old Plantation, Savannah, Georgia” from 1923, Ball dispassionately depicts a group of African American women and children engaged in various activities framed by a thatched hut. In asking why Ball would have painted such a scene during the modernizing 1920s, one must look to the haystack in the right middle area of the painting that both quotes from the work of the impressionist Claude Monet and symbolizes Ball’s formal preoccupation with this earlier French style.

In a similar but divergent work by the Philadelphia-born painter Colin Campbell Cooper entitled “O’Neill House, Charleston, South Carolina” from 1927, the artist depicts a charming woman pushing a stroller in front of one of Charleston’s most architecturally distinct antebellum homes. Titled the “O’Neill House” (also known as the “De Saussure House”) on the painting’s reverse, the building was originally owned by a planter in the 1850s before the Union army’s explosives damaged it during the Civil War.[2] In the 1920s and 30s, artists were just beginning to become interested in the southern Gothic aesthetic of the Confederate era and as such often romanticized its culture (a trend immortalized in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind). Painted in the sketchy manner of a tourist or ‘souvenir’ watercolor, the work reflects Cooper’s preoccupation with updating conventional or quintessential American subjects in the modern style of en plein air.

During this same era, Adolph Kronengold left his hometown of New Orleans to practice art on the East Coast. A former journalist who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1923) and the Art Students League (1924), he was an active commercial artist who returned to New Orleans in 1954 to open his own school. As a southerner who studied in the North, Kronengold forms the inverse of Worthington Ball and Campbell Cooper – northerners who traveled south to paint. Kronengold even exhibited a painting called “Autumn at Montclair,” presumably of the New Jersey suburb, at the Southern States Art League’s Exhibition in 1925 in Memphis.[3] Therefore when Kronengold painted works like “New Orleans Street Scene,” currently at Hawthorne Fine Art, the artist emphasized the formal aspects of the French Quarter since this subject reflected his own experiences living in New Orleans rather than a northern perspective on the South.

[1] Noggle, Burl. “The Twenties: A New Historiographical Frontier,” The Journal of American History 53 (Sept., 1966): 299.

[2] Lynch, Courtney. “Colin Campbell Cooper: ‘O’Neill House, Charleston, South Carolina,’” Hawthornefineart.com, accessed February 2016.

[3] Hutson, C. “Southern States Art League’s Exhibition.” The American Magazine of Art 16 (Nov., 1925): 612.

Worthington Ball

Alice Worthington Ball, “Sunday on the Old Plantation, Savannah, Georgia,” 1923, Hawthorne Fine Art.

Campbell Cooper.png

Colin Campbell Cooper, “O’Neill House, Charleston, South Carolina,” 1927, Hawthorne Fine Art.

Kronengold, Adolph, New Orleans-unframed

Adolph Kronengold, “New Orleans Street Scene,” n.d., Hawthorne Fine Art.

 

By Lizzie Frasco

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