Amistad and after: Hale Woodruff’s Talladega murals

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2012 | 

The new exhibition Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College offers unprecedented access to murals that for more than seventy years have resided at the historically black school in Alabama-and a compelling lesson in American history. It is the culmination of a collaboration between Talladega and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which oversaw the cleaning and restoration of the murals.

In 1938 Talladega president Buell Gallagher commissioned Hale Aspacio Woodruff to create the murals for the school’s Savery Library, then under construction. The building is named for William Savery, one of two freed slaves who started the school that would become Talladega College. Woodruff was living in Atlanta at the time, having been recruited in 1931 to launch a new art department at Atlanta University. He later admitted that he had not known about the Amistad uprising.1 The event gripped the fledgling nation in 1839 and for some time after, but it faded from popular consciousness after the Civil War. Woodruff garnered much acclaim for the project, which was featured in Time magazine and other publications. His friend Alain Locke, the Harlem Renaissance writer, highlighted the murals in his 1940 book The Negro in Art, as did W. E. B. Du Bois in his journal Phylon. More recently, Steven Spielberg brought the uprising widespread attention with his 1997 film Amistad.

  • Fig. 2. The Mutiny on the Amistad by Woodruff, 1939. Oil on canvas, 71 ¼ inches by 10 feet, 5 ⅜ inches. Collection of Talladega College, Alabama.

     

     

  • Fig. 4. The Repatriation of the Freed Captives by Woodruff, 1939. Oil on canvas, 71 ⅜ inches by 10 feet, 3 ⅞ inches. Talladega College Collection. 

     

     

  • Fig. 3. The Trial of the Amistad Captives by Woodruff, 1939. Oil on canvas, 71 inches by 20 feet, 2 inches. Talladega College Collection.

     

     

  • Originally mounted opposite each other in the lobby of Talladega’s Savery Library, each series consists of three panels, a center canvas measuring roughly six by twenty feet flanked by two six-by-eleven-foot panels. Conservationist Larry Shutts described the murals as in “surprisingly good condition.”2 Their placement high on the walls spared them the bustle of college life. All but one were essentially just tacked to the walls and easily removed.

    The complex narratives are necessarily abridged and dense with information. The series spans one hundred years of African-American history, from the 1839 mutiny aboard the Amistad to the 1939 opening of the Savery Library. Or, as exhibition curator Stephanie Mayer Heydt puts it, “from oppression to opportunity.”3 By linking the pivotal case in which slaves prevailed to the establishment of an educational institution that would foster progress in the black community, the project was intended to empower students. Considered one of Woodruff’s most important accomplishments, the murals are as significant historically as they are artistically.

    Originally mounted opposite each other in the lobby of Talladega’s Savery Library, each series consists of three panels, a center canvas measuring roughly six by twenty feet flanked by two six-by-eleven-foot panels. Conservationist Larry Shutts described the murals as in “surprisingly good condition.”2 Their placement high on the walls spared them the bustle of college life. All but one were essentially just tacked to the walls and easily removed.

    The complex narratives are necessarily abridged and dense with information. The series spans one hundred years of African-American history, from the 1839 mutiny aboard the Amistad to the 1939 opening of the Savery Library. Or, as exhibition curator Stephanie Mayer Heydt puts it, “from oppression to opportunity.”3 By linking the pivotal case in which slaves prevailed to the establishment of an educational institution that would foster progress in the black community, the project was intended to empower students. Considered one of Woodruff’s most important accomplishments, the murals are as significant historically as they are artistically.

    In June they and a selection of some forty paintings and prints went on view at the High, the first of eight venues on a three-year national tour.  The museum installation loses Woodruff’s visual pairing and intentional harmonizing of figures and elements that would have been across from each other, but Heydt does an excellent job of setting the stage in the exhibition catalogue.

    Born in Cairo, Illinois, and raised there and in Nashville, Woodruff attended the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, where the emphasis was on impressionistic landscape painting. He left after three years and briefly attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to Indianapolis. A local bookstore owner there introduced him to Carl Einstein’s 1921 German publication Afrikanische Plastick, just as the journal Opportunity was encouraging black artists to study African art and well-known European artists like Picasso and Modigliani were looking to African forms for inspiration. Eager to be at the intersection of modern and African art, Woodruff set off for Paris in 1927.

    During four years abroad he produced such canvases as Old Farmhouse in Beauce Valley (1928), a bucolic post-impressionist style landscape, and the cubistic painting The Card Players (1930). (Both are in the High exhibition.) Even after his return to the United States in 1931, Woodruff continued to employ European styles. Autumn in Georgia (Fig. 9) and Georgia Landscape (1934-1935), for example, are reminiscent of Van Gogh in their brushwork, and throughout the Talladega series there are direct references to European masterpieces.

    Living deep in the Jim Crow South, however, Woodruff’s focus turned to social issues and the squalid living conditions of many blacks. Shacks (1933) depicts city slums in south Atlanta, and a series of nine linocut prints offers such scenes as a lynching and women promenading in their Sunday best amid dilapidated structures. Ralph McGill, the anti-segregation columnist and later editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote that Woodruff’s works “speak out in rebuke. They are worth more, they say more than all the studies on economics and the need for slum clearance and for better housing.”4 

    Woodruff traveled to Mexico in 1936 to study with Diego Rivera, whose influence on him was profound (see Fig. 8). Woodruff’s European experience combined with Rivera’s method of constructing a compelling story beyond what he described, paraphrasing Rivera, as “just journalistic kinds of reporting”5 would find a perfect balance in the Talladega murals.

    In the tradition of grand history painting, the Talladega murals are rife with symbolism and cameos by prominent figures. With its dramatic backstory, the Amistad group is, unsurprisingly, the more compelling of the two. Woodruff rendered the violent episode and ensuing trial and repatriation in powerful compositions of thrusting angles and vibrant color.

    The Amistad story begins in Sierra Leone, where hundreds of Africans were illegally captured and sent to Cuba, a hub of the slave trade. Fifty-three were purchased by José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, Spanish planters traveling on the Cuban schooner Amistad. On July 1, 1839, led by Joseph Cinqué (born Sengbeh Pieh), the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and demanded they be returned to Africa. For nearly two months the planters instead deceptively sailed north until, on August 24, the Amistad was seized by an American brig off Long Island; the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut. Following the dismissal of murder charges, the case turned to salvage claims and property rights, i.e., who owned the slaves. With the Africans facing extradition to Cuba, a group of abolitionists, including Simeon S. Jocelyn, Joshua Leavitt, and Lewis Tappan, raised money for their defense and prevailed in court. The case went to the Supreme Court in February 1841, where former President John Quincy Adams argued for the defense and won the release of the thirty-five survivors; the rest had died at sea or while in captivity.

    And here is the crucial link between the two series: In 1846 the group of Amistad abolitionists helped create the American Missionary Association (AMA), whose mission to abolish slavery and educate blacks led to their establishing hundreds of schools and a number of colleges, including Atlanta, Howard, and Fisk universities and Talladega College.

    Woodruff begins the series with the chaotic Mutiny on the Amistad (Fig. 2). The Africans wield machete-like sugar cane knives, all raised and threatening, but here bloodless. For his composition, Woodruff borrowed from a print reproduction of a 135-foot-long panorama that toured the East Coast in 1840 and depicted the mutiny more gruesomely.6

    Woodruff’s composition also borrows from Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), an epic painting about another disaster at sea. A slain captive in the lower right corner of the mutiny canvas echoes the corpse in the foreground of the Géricault. Woodruff placed Cinqué left of center, battling the cook, whose malicious taunts-telling the Africans that they were to be killed and eaten upon arrival-are believed to have incited the rebellion. We see the cook from behind, as with the captain, wearing a green hat, on the right. Heydt suggests that Woodruff did not show their faces so as not to humanize them or arouse sympathy in the viewer.

    With rows of faces and repeated folds of fabric that create a visual rhythm throughout the composition, the orderliness of The Trial of the Amistad Captives (Fig. 3) contrasts, appropriately, with the havoc of the mutiny panel. Visual clues are carried from one scene to the next. For example, the green hat and blue shirt worn by the murdered captain and cook appear again in the courtroom, displayed on the evidence table at center, along with the knives used in the attack.

    The pivotal courtroom scene fills the twenty-foot-wide canvas. A group of twenty-six Africans is gathered on the left, fronted by Arthur Tappan, Simeon Jocelyn, and defense attorney Roger Baldwin. The young black man in the right foreground is James Covey, a freed slave who spoke Mende and was called on to translate the proceedings. The gray-haired Lewis Tappan is seated just behind him. To create the Africans’ likenesses, Woodruff relied on court drawings and other documents, as well as an 1840 oil portrait of Cinqué by the Reverend Nathaniel Jocelyn, brother of Simeon. Amid the crowd of faces on the left, Woodruff snuck in a portrait of himself, chin resting in hand. It is a poignant reminder of how the trial’s outcome affected the lives of succeeding generations of slaves and freedmen.

    The right panel features The Repatriation of the Freed Captives, showing Cinqué and other survivors back on African soil, accompanied by white missionaries (Fig. 4). Dressed in western attire, the freedmen are now educated. They are bearing books and, in the lower right corner, what might be a printing press. A discovery made during conservation was that an adze placed in front of Cinqué was originally painted as a rifle, whose butt is still visible beneath the framed edge, indicating that the change was made after the murals were installed. Who made the change and why remains unknown. While presented as a happy ending, the story that this scene and most other accounts do not tell is that the Africans returned to a country embroiled in civil war. Cinque’s own family is believed to have been killed or sold into slavery, and some unverified accounts have him becoming a slave trader himself. While tragic, that outcome cannot diminish the heroic efforts of Cinqué and the political and social impact of the Amistad saga.

    From 1940 to 1942 Woodruff worked on the founding murals, which commemorate the role of the AMA in the establishment of Talladega College. Perhaps because the imagined scenes are compilations of events, or because the compositions are not as dynamic or the colors as bold, they do not have the same emotional or visual impact as the Amistad trio.

    The series begins with The Underground Railroad, set in 1851(Fig. 5). One of three white men, who are offering assistance to a group of escaped slaves, extends a letter addressed to Arthur Tappan of Connecticut, the Amistad abolitionist who will presumably provide shelter. On the lower left, a female figure wearing a head scarf turns away from the viewer. Heydt likens her to a prophetess from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel,7 but she also has the demure posture of the central figure in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Valpinçon Bather (1808). In the background a black man on horseback tears down a sign reading “Runaway Slave Reward $400.” Heydt notes that the sign indicates that the slave owner offering the reward lived in Talladega, though the text would have been difficult to read with the murals installed overhead.8

    All manner of activity is taking place across the expansive central panel, Opening Day at Talladega College (Fig. 6). A banner announcing the school’s opening indicates the year, 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. Members of the AMA are on site to register students and train teachers. Standing at the center is a black man, identified by Woodruff as William Savery, who gestures to the library that is named for him. The scene is tame by comparison, but to convey the significance of the school and its transformative effect on the lives of African-Americans was no doubt a challenge.

    The Building of Savery Library (Fig. 7) is a busy scene filled with black and white figures working together on the structure. While the scene is one of racial harmony and collaboration, Heydt suggests that Woodruff chose to depict the library in an unfinished state as a metaphor for the civil rights work yet to be done.

    What would Woodruff paint if he were commissioned today? From the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II to the race riots of the 1960s, Rodney King and Barack Obama, the work continues.

     

    STEPHANIE CASH is an art writer based in Atlanta.

    1 Stephanie Mayer Heydt, “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,” in Stephanie Mayer Heydt, Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College (High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2012), p. 58.  2 Larry Shutts, “The Conservation of the Talladega Murals,” in Heydt, Rising Up, p. 125.  3 In conversation with the author at the Atlanta Art Conservation Center, April 19, 2012.   4 Ralph McGill, “Quiet Negro Artist Here Hailed as One of Modern Masters,” Atlanta Constitution, December 18, 1935; quoted in Heydt, “Rising Up,” p. 36.  5 Quoted in Heydt, “Rising Up,” p. 52.   6 The 1840 panorama, now lost, was created by Amasa Hewins. A copy of the woodcut reproduction made by John Warner Barber is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. Heydt, “Rising Up,” p. 67.  7 Ibid., p. 83.  8 Ibid., p. 81.