Here is a painting from 1859 that might still remain controversial. It is Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life in the South”, which portrays slaves living in a house in Washington D. C., where slavery was still legal and where, indeed, freed Negros from further north were held in captivity until they could be moved south and sold to plantations in the deep south as slaves. The picture is of an urban house (there is another house immediately adjacent), people courting on the front porch, or playing on a banjo, or just looking around or resting. What could be controversial about this painting?
Now Johnson was himself an Abolitionist, as that can be attested by his picture “A Ride to Liberty-- The Fugitive Slaves” (1862), but one interpretation that could be applied to “Negro Life” is the one applied to other so-called “genre paintings” of the preceding half-century: the painting is racist because it makes use of all the standard Negro stereotypes. A child is playing the banjo, people are lazing around; a black man is courting a much lighter skinned woman-- a fully white one just too offensive. The house the slaves live in looks dilapidated because the roof above the back yard is broken but the house is not uncomfortable, it roomy enough for all the people living there, and so people in slavery aren’t really that badly off, just poor and limited.
An interpretation of the picture that is contrary to the first one is that the picture is in praise of how slaves are able to overcome their circumstances and make something approaching normal lives for themselves, and so a portrait of black heroism. Courtship goes on; music goes on; sociability goes on; pleasure goes on. Notice that both of these interpretations make use of the same evidence in the picture and so the interpretations are based on what the interpreter brings with him or her to the picture.
I want to bring something else to the picture, which is a sociologist’s appreciation of how people in a despised or subordinate subculture are treated by the general culture, which is as objects of interest. What the picture does is make familiar and recognizable what is passing strange because it is takes place among people who are rejected or are outsiders as a group. What we learn from the picture is that even slaves live ordinary lives, filling them with courtship, culture and socializing, just as everyone else does. That is liberating because it means the outgroup is just as human as the rest of us but also makes us aware of how unliberated we are because it is a surprise to learn this fact that, once learned, is obvious. So other ethnic groups seem strange in that they eat different foods and perhaps speak different languages and have differently shaped faces, but they are part of common humanity and so do all the things ordinary people do, as also happens when we see Amazonian Indians hugging their young and that makes them part of ”the family of man”, as it used to be called.
It is not only people who were slaves who have to escape into being just like everyone else. A case closer to home, at the moment, is the status of women, whose lives are so different, so much shared with fellow women rather than either their brothers or even their spouses, that the sexes seem very different in their concerns, to operate on a different mental wavelength. Women deal with their bodies, with child rearing, with keeping a household in order, as well as with their feelings about men, and their concerns about these matters they may share with other women more easily than with their own menfolk.That is why the paintings of Mary Cassatt, the female Impressionist, are important. It is not that her paintings are creative in technique or in their construction. It is, rather, that they portray the world in which a woman lives.
Cassatt adopts the opposite strategy from the one employed by Johnson to rehabilitate her group, women, as being fully human. Rather than making strange people familiar by showing them doing usual things, which is what Johnson does, Cassatt takes the familiar things women do and treats those as the customs of a strange tribe and so noteworthy in themselves for showing how the life of women is distinct even if familiar. That is the way to read “Tea”, a painting of hers from 1880, which is striking for its vividly colored wallpaper and its bright light from an untraceable source. The red stripes on the wallpaper set off the red in the sofa upholstery and the red of the table before the two woman. There is also the white of the fireplace and of the china. But most of all there is the fancy tea set, put out for such occasions, quite fancy and handsome, and it dominates the picture, as if the utensils for serving tea make it a form of technology and so a kind of job on its own, however unremunerated. The picture is more important, however, for its meaning than for its artistic elements. This is what well to do women do with their time: they have one another over for tea, the two women, in this case, nicely dressed and one wearing a high quality, pert, hat. It is the same scene that is repeated down through Lucy and Ethel having coffee together every morning, though more informally dressed. It is what women do when their men are away from home at work and suggests that the life of well to do women is not so bad, even if somewhat constrained in that they have too much time on their hands. That is why Lucy and Ethel get themselves into trouble: they are trying to get some of the excitement that they impute to be part of the everyday life of their husbands.
So what else can and do women do with their time? Consult Mary Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath”, from 1893, which shows a woman, presumably the child’s mother, washing the little girl’s feet in a basin of water. Yes the colors are important. There is purple in the mother’s robe and on the water basin and there is white in the towel and on the pitcher and white on the mother’s robe, the colors making for a pleasing composition. But, again, the significance of the painting is the meaning of what it pictures. The child is naked under the towel and this oft repeated theme of a woman drying off a child is as close to Cassatt comes to doing a nude. What it shows is that women deal with bodies that are unclothed. They tend to the bodily needs of their children in ways men do not and at that time would mean change diapers while men did not. So every mother is a Florence Nightingale: a nurse who is more sensitive and aware of bodily functions than are men however demur women may have to seem.
What else do women do? Consult “Woman with a Pearl Necklace” from 1879, where a woman occupies a seat at the opera, looking quite charming and pretty, caught an an angle that shows a little cleavage, but open faced and friendly, a good companion, quite different from the haughty women whose portraits Sargent paints at the same time that Cassatt is doing her work. Cassatt’s women are nice people to be around, unguarded and cheerful. No wonder men like them, while Sargent’s women, likeable or not, are formidable.
So put it all together. Women are friends, mothers, companions. That is their round of life that is so much taken for granted that men especially will not recognize it as a separate way of life, one that is lived simultaneously and next to and even in intersection with the lives of men, but having its own qualities, and this is aside from whether women are also becoming the New Woman the age proclaims, the one of unmarried professionals, which is the designation that also suits Cassatt. They are sort of an ethnic group of their own, but that is a perception which will gradually dawn upon the world.