Thursday, August 25, 2011


With Hurricane Irene bearing down on the Northeast, the great Long Island Express hurricane of 1938 will get mentioned many times over the next few days.

[above: Philip Evergood (American, 1901-1973), My Forebears Were Pioneers, 1939. Oil on canvas, 50 x 36 inches. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; University purchase. GMOA 1974.3190]

An excerpt [ed: links, obviously, not in the original] from 100 American Paintings, our book on the permanent collection:

Philip Evergood’s My Forebears Were Pioneers was on display in the Contemporary American Art Exhibition of the New York World’s Fair in 1939. In her review, noting that “American art and artists have come into their own,” Elizabeth McCausland described the painting in some detail:
In the background is a macabre Victorian Gothic dwelling; across the front yard lies an uprooted tree; in a fantastic rocking chair sits an old women, of the character typified by the phrase ‘D.A.R.’ The compositional integration of these elements and the final unification by a brilliantly bizarre palette of acrid purples, greens, and yellows would suggest that this is an invention of the painter’s fancy. Actually Evergood saw this subject in real life soon after the New England hurricane and through creative imagination transmuted the observed fact into mordant comment.
In many of his paintings, including My Forebears Were Pioneers, Evergood made use of actual events, often layering the image with symbols and allegory that intentionally transcended the precise happening. Ostensibly, the backdrop event for the painting was The Great New England Hurricane, also called The Long Island Express, of 1938 which struck the northeastern United States in late September and resulted in 564 deaths, 15,000 damaged homes, and 3,300 damaged boats. Evergood writes:
We were driving from Cape Cod to New York, going through a little village with all the trees blown down, lying on the lawns, and there was a beautiful, austere old lady—beautiful because she was so ramrod straight—sitting in her chair with an old dog at her feet and a Bible on her knee calmly looking out at the cars going by with the complete destruction of her house and trees lying all over the beautiful lawn. I was impressed by the way that old lady of pioneer stock was unperturbed by anything. Her grandfathers had fought Indians and come over on the Mayflower, and there she was with her Bible, not changed by all that turmoil of nature.
Discussing his reasons for the symbolic and allegorical tiering of meaning, Evergood continues:
Julian Levi, the painter, gave the picture its title. He and [fellow artist] Bruce Mitchell came into my studio while I was struggling with it, and one of them said, ‘It’s funny, Phil, how you seem to deal with topical subjects. I don’t see things that way.’ And I said, ‘Well, it is topical now because we’ve had a hurricane and I saw the old lady sitting there on her lawn, but I don’t like to feel that it will always be topical. I don’t paint to put over topical ideas. I feel very conscious when I develop a theme that it must have universal connotations before I want to put it down in paint.’
Those collective subtexts were noticed by critics when My Forebears Were Pioneers went on display in the late 1930s and 1940s. For example, McCausland, cited above, notes the “D.A.R.,” in this case a specific reference to Grant Wood’s Daughters of Revolution (1932; Cincinnati Art Museum) and the critical understanding of that painting as a populist but satirical comment on the absurdity of xenophobia in a nation of immigrants. Oliver Larkin, in an essay for A.C.A. Gallery’s 1946 show of Evergood’s paintings contrasts My Forebears Were Pioneers with “the crisp immediacy of Hopper” and “the warmly felt picturesqueness of Burchfield.” Larkin asks whether the woman and the scene remain one “of bleak pride, or refined decay,” with the house having “the same battered dignity as the lady” or “something quite different?” Perhaps, Larkin argues, the painting serves as a comment upon “contrast between pioneers to whom trees meant something to be cleared away” and their descendants for whom an old home means “respectable privacy.” Lastly, Larkin notes that perhaps Evergood “has felt and expressed the tragic-comedy” of averting complete destruction for man, but just “by the skin of his teeth.” Herman Baron contended that the painting contained “as much poignancy and social philosophy as is to be found in Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard.’”

Evergood's painting is currently on display in the Nalley (North) Gallery in the new permanent collection wing at the Georgia Museum of Art.

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