Thursday, April 20, 2017

New Acquisitions: "Shad, Altamaha River, Georgia" by Warren Cushman

Warren Cushman, Shad, Altamaha River,
, 1895. Oil on canvas.
As Earth Day approaches, we reflect on this new acquisition, which touches upon the subject of the ecology of Georgia’s rivers. Through the generosity of Greg and Jennifer Holcomb, the Georgia Museum of Art reeled this work in to its permanent collection. The image is of a shad fish. By the time Warren Cushman painted this image in 1895, the fish may have been something of a rarity, for the shad species had disappeared in the upper waterways of the state, though it played a significant role in the human experience of Georgia, from prehistoric times into the late antebellum period.

Shad fish had been a prominent part of the food culture for early American Indians as well as later settlers. Interestingly, Athens was found to be an attractive settlement site in part because the Oconee River had a “shad run,” but by 1807, the Augusta Chronicle reported that the shad had ceased to “run” on the upper Oconee River. By 1812, the Georgia legislature tried to secure open rivers as part of some of the first environmental legislation in this region. Writing in 1877, W.L. Jones observed the radical demise of various species of Georgia fish: “It is lamentable fact that our food fisheries are so rapidly decreasing in numbers, and, unless the State, in a few years, shall take the matter in hand, and resort to artificial propagation to replenish our nearly exhausted streams, our grand children will have to refer to a book on Natural History to ascertain the kinds of fish upon which our fathers fed so bountifully on.”

Books of natural history were created from works of art such as this depiction, a visual description designed to catch the observable physical characteristics of this species. Cushman’s work, however, also betrays a genre of decorative still life. Within the image, he uses decorative wood “graining,” a technique used to simulate either wood on nonwood surfaces or expensive woods on cheaper ones. While Georgia’s children can now have a shad fish image to view, thankfully they are not restricted to it. Ecological restoration to Georgia’s rivers has since resulted in increased runs of shad. Happily, objects like this one point to cross-disciplinary study and collaboration, one of our sustained educational goals. We extend our appreciation to the Holcombs for their generosity in making this gift.

Dale L. Couch
Curator of Decorative Arts

No comments: