|Thomas Waterman Wood, The Kitten, also known as Pompey and the Kitten, 1873|
Genre painting in America from the 19th century can appear deceptively ordinary. One such example is the Georgia Museum of Art's recent acquisition, “The Kitten,” by Thomas Waterman Wood, which we mentioned in our last post on new acquisitions. Our curator of American art, Sarah Kate Gillespie, explains why there is more than meets the eye:
While on its surface it seems to smack of overt sentimentality, one can infer deeper political messages based on Wood’s other works. His most well-known series of paintings, “A Bit of War History” (1865–66), features an African American man as contraband, soldier and veteran and was apparently inspired by the sight of a Kentucky veteran on homemade wooden crutches.
Many of Wood’s subsequent paintings treat politicized subjects, both white and African Americans. When examined in light of Wood’s larger oeuvre and his obvious interest in the politics and shifting social norms of a post–Civil War era, his seemingly innocuous images of African Americans can be read as deliberately reassuring depictions of a newly emancipated population for a white, northern audience. The black man is shown as docile, humane, kind to animals and children—in short, not a threat. When paired with existing works in our collection from the same era that also treat African American subjects (such as George Henry Hall’s “Boys Pilfering Molasses” and Winslow Homer’s “Taking Sunflower to Teacher”), this image helps us begin to tell a more complete story about visualizations of race in the Civil War period.
Check back in the upcoming weeks to learn more about George Henry Hall’s “Boys Pilfering Molasses” and Winslow Homer’s “Taking Sunflower to Teacher.”