Art History Guest Post - Shana Klein
"Watermelons are a challenging subject to paint; their messy composition, frosty surface, and glassy reflections are difficult to imitate on canvas. But in the nineteenth century, I find that painters embraced this challenge and showed watermelons blasted open and fractured in chunks. While watermelons provided an opportunity to experiment with form and texture, the fruit’s delinquent qualities ware also useful for a darker purpose in the late-nineteenth century: to spread prejudice about African Americans and their purportedly savage appetite for watermelon.
I recently delivered a paper on this topic at the Wyeth Symposium at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The title of my paper was, “Cutting away the Rind: A History of Race and Violence in Representations of Watermelon.” In this paper, I discussed how magazine illustrations, silverware designs, paintings, and photographs all reproduced the nasty stereotype that African Americans possessed an insatiable lust for the fruit. This stereotype was so pervasive that it even infiltrated a still-life depiction where no human figures were present.
Just as important as it is to show examples of racism in art of the watermelon, I am devoted to identifying examples of resistance as well. I argued in my presentation that paintings of watermelons violently stabbed, cut open, and bleeding with juice might have served a contrary purpose to mainstream images by commenting on the violent mistreatment of African Americans in society. My paper set out to show how paintings of food in the nineteenth century were not always quiet and meditative musings on inanimate objects, but strategic opportunities to repeat or challenge racial stereotypes in the late-nineteenth century.
I invite you to learn more about the social politics of American art in my upcoming classes! Check out the course schedule for more information."
Images: (Top) Valerie Hegarty, Still Life with Watermelon, Peaches and Crows, 2013, Canvas, stretcher, paper, acrylic paint, foam, papier-mâché, wire, glue, gold foil, epoxy, fabric, thread, 57” (w) x 37” (h) x 19” (d)
(In text) Edward Edmondson, Jr., Still Life with Melons, Pear and Peach, 1862. Oil on Academy Board, 18 x 24 in., The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio.