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A Southern Ox Cart, 1883, 1883
Elizabeth Duveneck (1846-1888)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
19 7/8 x 30 3/4 inches
Signature Details: Signed lower left
Status: Placed in a Private Collection

A serious painter intent on a professional career, Lizzie Boott had already studied for several years with William Morris Hunt in Boston and with Thomas Couture outside Paris before spending the summer of 1879 with her tutor and future husband, the artist Frank Duveneck. Between 1879 and 1886, the year of her marriage, she regularly exhibited landscapes, portraits, still lifes and figure paintings at the Boston Art Club and the National Academy of Design in New York. She also received steady—mostly favorable—mention from critics. In response to sixty-six paintings displayed at Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston in 1884, reviewers praised her as a colorist and noted, in particular, her “half-dozen pictures of Georgia Negroes,” painted the previous year. “Such pictures usually show the grotesque, good-natured, amusing side of Negro life, which calls out from the spectators only the amused smile of contempt,” a critic for the Boston Globe wrote.

 

But Miss Boott has emphasized the nobler side of the Negro character and brought out the patient pathos of their expression. . . . One many find fault now and then with the free brush strokes with which Miss Boott sometimes applies color . . . but her present exhibition in variety of subject, command of technique, evidence of power held well in restraint, good taste, and that inner meaning which is the soul of a picture, is among the best individual exhibitions which have been made in Boston within the last two or three years (Duveneck Papers, reel 1151, frame 649).

 

Boott’s depictions of African-Americans were generally praised, and special interest focused on the “great subtlety of expression” in her “darkies heads”—Neptune, Mum Hannah, Daddy Jim Polite, Jerry, Jane and Serena. “We seem to have gone south,” wrote an unidentified critic, “and seen the one picturesque element there is here in population, and to have felt Nature there in her profusion. The sense of exuberance pervading the room might well characterize a Southern clime where the artist has gained her feeling” (Duveneck Papers, reel 1151, frame 649).

 

A Southern Ox Cart is one of two genre scenes exhibited in Boston with the same title, identified in the exhibition checklist as “(1)” and “(2).” Though the other painting is presently unlocated, the two are most likely variations on a theme rather than duplicate pictures. In our vigorously brushed example, a dignified, well dressed, African-American man is shown transporting a barrel in an open, wooden farm wagon, while a small boy in a red cap awaits his arrival. The scene includes a pair of oxen; a black kettle smoking on an open fire; and a neat, white-washed storage building. This was a typical Barbizon subject, glorifying the humble but noble life of the soil, underscoring the influence of Corot and Millet on Boott’s art. The painterly technique and palette of somber browns, grays and greens demonstrate her concern for the suggestive qualities usually associated with studies rather than finished works. The poetic style aligns her with the more progressive artists of her day.

 

We know very little about Boott’s visit to the South or about her true feelings toward her black subjects. She probably traveled to Georgia by train. When debarking in Augusta, she would have been confronted by a swarm of black hackmen vying for business between the railroad station and countryside. Since the factories in most Southern cities employed only whites, African-Americans found themselves working in the tobacco industry or eking out livings as farmers. Boott evidently painted a few portraits around Augusta, then visited nearby Aiken, South Carolina, where she painted the previously mentioned portraits of five black farm workers (Osborne, p. 33). She also painted two Virginia scenes: Beach (Old Point Comfort) and Richmond Meadows.

 

It is not hard to see why critics credit Boott for treating her black subjects with dignity and restraint. Caricature is absent in this example, and she seems to have seen this man and his son as individuals rather than types. The little boy is probably Jerry (Private Collection), whose head, “marked by a frank winsomeness . . . full of brightness and open-eyed wonder,” attracted favorable attention at the Boston show (American Art Archives, reel 1151, frame 645). The driver is likely Daddy Jim Polite, one of two African-American male “heads” in the exhibition of an age commensurate with the role of father. Boott’s dispassionate point of view has counterparts in some of the works painted in the previous decade by Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer.

 

The classic statements of black picturesqueness—those of William Aiken Walker—were created at about the same time as Boott’s and were largely the result of growing tourist demand for souvenirs of the antebellum South. Walker’s plantation scenes and figure studies are reminders of what had already passed, viewed nostalgically—much like Frederick Remington’s cowboys and Indians—at a time when America was preparing to play a new  and more powerful international role. Other late nineteenth century artists who portrayed the picturesque side of black rural life were Lyell Carr (1857-1912) and Willie Chambers (late nineteenth century-early twentieth century), whose undated portrait of Uncle Hamp and His Cart, Montezuma, Georgia (Robert P. Coggins Collection, Marietta, Georgia) is equally forthright.

 

           

Lizzie Boott painted very little after her marriage to Frank Duveneck in 1886. Two years later, at the age of forty-two, she died from pneumonia, leaving behind her husband and one-year-old son. A Southern Ox Cart is one of a small group of paintings judged by her contemporaries to be her best work.

 

References:

 

Frank and Elizabeth Boott Duveneck Papers, reel 1151. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

 

Exhibition Checklist. “Paintings by Miss Elizabeth Boott at Doll & Richards Gallery,” February 1-14, 1884, Boston.

 

Osborne, Carol M. “Frank Duveneck & Elizabeth Boott: An American Romance,” in Duveneck: Frank Duveneck & Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. New York: Owen Gallery, 1996.

 

Nancy Rivard Shaw

 

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

 

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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