Employment of Negroes in Agriculture
1934 Earle Richardson Born: New York, New York 1912 Died: New York, New York 1935 oil on canvas 48 x 32 1/8 in. (121.8 x 81.6 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor 1964.1.183 Not currently on view
Earle Richardson depicted his fellow African Americans working barefooted in a southern cotton field, but the artist denied demeaning stereotypes to stress the dignity of his subjects. These workers are not bent over to pick cotton; the three youthful figures have a monumental aspect, using their impressive strength to handle heavy baskets of cotton. Only one older woman bends over her task. The workers' quiet pride transcends their identity as manual laborers. They stand at the front of the painting, where they confront the viewer as equals who are ready for a better life.
The Public Works of Art Project welcomed African American artists like Richardson who would paint "Negro themes." Yet they counted only about ten such artists among the thousands employed on the Project. Richardson was also rare in showing a scene far from his home. The artist was a native New Yorker, but he set his painting in the South in order to make a broad statement about his race. Richardson and fellow artist Malvin Gray Johnson planned to say more about the history and promise of black people in their mural series Negro Achievement, slated to be installed in the New York Public Library's 135th Street Branch, but neither young man lived long enough to complete the project.
1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label
Richardson's painting of an abundant cotton crop signified the promise of New Deal agricultural programs, but it also offered visibility and respect to an overlooked community of Americans. The workers fill the frame of the painting, moving with the serene gravity of figures carved into a wall relief. The cotton pickers in this image testified to the vital role of blacks in the South's farm economy, even as hundreds of thousands of African Americans made the Great Migration northward to Detroit's auto plants and Cleveland's steel mills.
Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006
Ethnic - African-American
Landscape - farm
Landscape - plant - cotton
Occupation - farm - harvesting
New Deal - Public Works of Art Project - New York State
paint - oil
fabric - canvas
About Earle Richardson
Born: New York, New York 1912 Died: New York, New York 1935