Oh Freedom! Earle Richardson

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
Media - 1964.1.183 - SAAM-1964.1.183_1 - 67394

Earle Richardson (1912–1935), Employment of Negroes in Agriculture, 1934, oil on canvas, 48 x 32 1/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor, 1964.1.183

Student Questions

1. What crop do the workers seem to be harvesting? What does that crop make you think of?

2. How would you characterize these farmers? Do they look like slaves, tenant farmers, migrant workers, or landowners?

3. Why do you think Richardson painted the figures in the foreground instead of in the distance?

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About This Artwork

With this powerful image of Southern cotton pickers, Earle Richardson provides a positive if idealized vision of African American workers that countered popular stereotypes. Instead of placing the pickers in the distance, stooped and anonymous in the landscape, Richardson sets them in the foreground high above the fields. Diagonal rows of cotton appear to stretch endlessly behind them, but the full baskets and some rows of bare stalks in the middle distance show what the workers have already accomplished. The deep shadows and simplified, repeating shapes Richardson used to compose the group of pickers create rhythms and patterns that lock the sturdy figures together, making them appear strong, efficient, and above all noble in their work. The woman wearing a red headscarf, for example, does not seem to toil under the cotton bales she carries. Rather, her work makes her look regal: the bundle on her head appears more like a crown than a burden.

Such imagery would have appealed to the administrators of the Public Works of Art Project, which hired artists to make morale-boosting paintings during the Great Depression. Richardson, one of the few black artists the project hired, may have been inspired by the New Negro movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Its leaders argued for the establishment of a distinct black cultural identity and encouraged black artists to integrate African heritage and native Southern folk culture into their works. For Richardson, Mexican muralists provided a model for achieving these goals. Artists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco shared with many African American artists the same progressive and egalitarian political views. They also drew attention to the plight of the common man, worked together to fight oppression, and celebrated their cultural heritage. These muralists employed an accessible, streamlined style to celebrate workers and peasants, Mexican folk culture and history, and revolutionary heroes. By depicting black workers as heroic and majestic, and thereby honoring their contribution to American agriculture, Richardson's painting exemplifies the New Negro movement and the Mexican school's ideals.

About This Artist

Earle Wilton Richardson (born New York City 1912–died New York City 1935)

As a young artist in Harlem, Earle Wilton Richardson showed great promise. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York City, winning prizes for his work. In 1933, his Profile of a Negro Girl was named best portrait in the annual exhibition at the Harmon Foundation in New York City. As the executive director of the Harmon Foundation at the time explained, after being shown in New York, these shows traveled throughout the United States “to show outstanding creativity… as an approach to better interracial, intercultural understanding.” In 1934, Richardson and Malvin Gray Johnson planned a Public Works of Art Project mural entitled Negro Achievement for a Harlem library. They completed studies honoring Benjamin Banneker, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and others, but in November 1934, Johnson died suddenly, and Richardson died the following year without completing the project. Richardson’s surviving works reveal his affinity with the Mexican school artists, especially muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco.

Related Material

Richmond Barthé, Blackberry Woman

Richmond Barthé, Blackberry Woman, modeled by 1930, cast 1932, Bronze, 35 1/2 x 12 1/4 x 16 1/4 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2001.6

Like Earle Richardson, Richmond Barthé wanted to create art that would ennoble and empower farm workers. Although Barthé frankly depicts bare feet, a plain dress, and simple baskets that indicate poverty and strenuous labor, Blackberry Woman’s strong posture, derived from classical sculpture, endows the figure with a regal presence.

 Late 1800s African American tenant farmhouse

Late 1800s African American tenant farmhouse. Gift of Levitt and Sons, Inc., Catalog 69.196, Negative number: 79-4523, Home & Community Life, National Museum of American History

The farmers in Earle Richardson’s canvas might have lived in a tenant farmhouse similar to the one shown here. Even before the Great Depression began, blacks in the South led a precarious existence. Victimized by racism and violence and saddled with the lowest paying jobs, they suffered disproportionately the ravages of the economic collapse. During the 1930s, four hundred thousand African Americans migrated northward, but most remained behind—80 percent of whom continued working as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or day laborers. Despite the difficult conditions, African American farmers shared a culture. They built communities, made time for worship and leisure, and organized for workers’ rights.

Marion Post Wolcott, Negro men and women working in a field, Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation

Marion Post Wolcott, Negro men and women working in a field, Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation. Natchitoches, Louisiana, 1940, printed later. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Dr. John H. and Jann Arrington Wolcott, 1998.120.56

The New Deal created a number of arts projects in addition to the mural program that commissioned Richardson’s work. One of these was the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography program, which sent numerous photographers to document rural poverty and the perseverance of American workers. As an FSA photographer, Marion Post Wolcott’s images, like this one of men and women working at Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation, enlisted documentary photography to raise awareness about the scope of the Depression and the government’s relief efforts.

Guillermo Zamora (photographer), Diego Rivera

Guillermo Zamora (photographer), Diego Rivera, about 1940, Photographic print, 25 x 21 cm. Florence Arquin papers, 1923–1985, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Earle Richardson and many other American artists in the 1930s and ‘40s were inspired by the art and politics of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, pictured here. Well known for his murals that promoted the dignity and rights of workers and minorities, Rivera came to wider public attention in the 1930s. The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of his work in 1931, and the artist undertook several high-profile commissions in New York City. Man at the Crossroads, a mural he painted at Rockefeller Center, was controversial and ultimately destroyed. His 1933 mural cycle Portrait of America, which he painted for the New Workers School, includes a number of vignettes addressing issues of racial prejudice.