Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Cotton Gin"

George Beattie (American, 1919-1997)
Cotton Gin, 1956
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; Transfer from the Georgia Capitol Museum, a department of the University of Georgia Libraries
GMOA 2011.647

It would have been remarkable for any artist to attempt to present the history of agriculture in Georgia without including enslaved Africans and African Americans working on a cotton plantation. By the 1790s, entrepreneurs looking to turn cotton into a lucrative crop for the state were perfecting new mechanized cotton gins, the most famous of which was invented by Eli Whitney on a Savannah River plantation owned by Catharine Greene in 1793. With the innovation allowing easy removal of the seeds from the crop, cotton planters greatly expanded production, relying on the labor of the enslaved, and the slave population of Georgia increased dramatically during the early decades of the nineteenth century. In 1790, some 29,000 slaves resided in the state; by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, some 460,000 slaves constituted 44 percent of Georgia’s total population. About three quarters of Georgia’s slave population resided on cotton plantations. Whatever their location, slaves in Georgia resisted their masters with strategies that included overt violence against whites, flight, the destruction of white property, and deliberately inefficient work practices. Slaves in Georgia experienced hideous cruelties, but white slaveholders never succeeded in extinguishing the slaves’ human capacity to covet freedom. As such, the history and meaning of the cotton plantation as represented in art and in our shared visual culture remains contested, complicated, and meaningful.

In the foreground of the painting, Beattie presents a visual replica of an early Whitney gin, with an emphasis on its working parts. Beattie draws upon many earlier representations of the southern cotton plantation, including popular illustrations in nineteenth-century periodicals like Harper’s Weekly.

Image: William L. Sheppard, “The First Cotton-Gin,” Harper’s Weekly,
December 18, 1869, p. 813.

Unlike some of these images, which romanticize the work involved, Beattie uses compositional choices and juxtapositions to make the burden, labor, and foundation of the economic and agricultural system quite clear. The stooped backs of the robust yet enslaved African Americans indicate the fact that they are doing all the hard labor (picking and ginning the cotton) while a woman, a child, and a mule press the cotton into bales in the left background. Two white masters, wearing fine top hats and coats, examine the product of the labor and the gin as a white overseer checks the weight of a bag of cotton. In a nostalgic reference to the Old South, Beattie paints a late antebellum, Neoclassical mansion amid enframing trees near the center of the composition, but he places the shoulders of an enslaved man at the base of the mansion, making reference to the wealth of Georgia having been made literally and figuratively upon the backs of its enslaved peoples.

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