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President F.D. Roosevelt on Stand, Charlotte, N.C., 1936
Eugene Thomason (1895-1972)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
40 x 52 inches
Signature Details: Eugene Thomason verso: Green Pastures-/Charlotte. N.C. 1936./ President F.D. Roosevelt./on stand/Painted by/ Eugene Thomason
Status: Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina

On September 10, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Charlotte, North Carolina, to dedicate Charlotte and Mecklenburg County's American Legion Memorial Stadium and to participate in a large regional Democratic Party meeting that was called the Green Pastures Rally. Roosevelt scholars have claimed that the president's speech that day was the inauguration of his campaign for re-election in the 1936 presidential election. An accomplished Southern regional artist, Eugene Thomason depicted this important and dramatic scene with a strong formal composition, vibrant color, and expressive brushstrokes that convey the crowded excitement and zeal of a key Democratic political rally of its era.

Roosevelt's speech on the occasion was the first public event held in the brand-new Memorial Stadium, which was financed by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA) as an unparalleled civic improvement for the city and county. Built in the rear of the local National Guard armory, the stadium was dedicated to World War I veterans and the American Legion organization. It was a showcase for Roosevelt's New Deal partnership between local and federal agencies to provide employment opportunities for economically distressed regions through the construction of permanent civic improvements throughout the nation.

Roosevelt had received his party's presidential nomination at its Philadelphia convention in June 1936. That act was a vindication of his array of New Deal programs and of his diplomatic engagement with the democratic nations of Europe. His Republican opponent was Governor Alfred "Alf" Landon of Kansas (1887-1987), a man of little political acumen whose party was burdened with isolationist and anti-New Deal political values. The assassination of the powerful and popular Louisiana Senator, Huey Long (1893-1935) in September 1935 had eliminated the major threat to Roosevelt's re-election. Still, the president had to campaign in the South, where Southern Democrats were unhappy with his moderate views on race and insistence that African Americans participate in the fruits of the New Deal.

Roosevelt visited western North Carolina for a few days before arriving in Charlotte to attend the Green Pastures Rally, a regional meeting planned by southern New Dealers to showcase the candidate and counteract segregationists within the party. It was raining as he drove in an open car to the Memorial Stadium and as Governor John C.B. Eringhaus spoke, but as Roosevelt approached the podium, the rains ceased and the sun emerged. He addressed the crowd of 35,000 with a speech that echoed the theme of the rally, citing the biblical Twenty-third Psalm to proclaim that his New Deal programs had helped lead the nation out of the depression to "green pastures" and "still waters." The president's appearance was a great success and helped to keep the Southern Democrats firmly in line to support him.

Thomason was born in 1895 at Blacksburg, South Carolina, in Cherokee County just south of the North Carolina state line. Blacksburg was a textile mill town nestled among many such small towns north and south of the state line. He demonstrated an early artistic talent, but his father, a railroad executive, sought to direct Thomason to more practical pursuits.

Thomason was enrolled at Davidson College only one year, in 1916, before enlisting in the United States Navy. Serving until 1918, he was briefly stationed in the New York City area. After his discharge, Thomason returned to Charlotte to resume his studies and artistic training. He was introduced to James B. Duke, the North Carolina tobacco magnate, who assisted him to move to New York and enroll in the Art Students League. There and at the Grand Central School of Art Thomason studied with John Sloan, Wayman Adams, and Frank Dumond.

The most enduring influence upon Thomason was his long friendship with George Luks (1866-1933), one of the early practitioners of the Ashcan school of painting, whose artists advocated the expressive painting of direct experience and everyday subjects and figures.

Thomason and Luks shared a studio in New York City and collaborated for twelve years. They merged their households and both were chief instructors at Luks' School of Art during the 1920s. Influenced by Luks and Robert Henri (1865-1929), Thomason avoided consciously academic styles and genres. Instead, he sought out his subjects among the common people of his New York neighborhoods. Inspired by Henri, he traveled to the west coast of Ireland to paint farmers, sailors, and fishermen.

Thomason returned permanently to North Carolina in 1932. He lived briefly in the western mountain region but soon settled in Charlotte. There he was influential in the establishment of the Mint Museum (another of Roosevelt's WPA construction projects) and the Society of Charlotte Artists. He taught many local painters and encouraged them to exhibit and to sell their works professionally. A major exhibition of his own art was mounted at the new Mint Museum in February 1937. 

In 1939 Thomason married a local musician and the couple moved westward to Nebo, a small piedmont community in McDowell County. He spent the remainder of his life there or in his Charlotte home. Active until the end of his life, Eugene Thomason died in 1972, shortly after completing a Crucifixion painting for the Roman Catholic Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte.

Thomason's work was exhibited at the Mint Museum, North Carolina Museum of Art and at South Carolina's Columbia Museum of Art. In landscapes, portraits, and genre paintings, he worked with large brushes and broad strokes of paint, capturing the lives of Appalachian mountain folks, city dwellers, and working men and women in the New South. He created the fictitious "Hankins Family," and painted its members in numerous portraits and genre scenes, representing such activities such as church sings, indoor cabin life, and the labor of mountain folks. A prominent and highly accomplished Southern regionalist, Thomason has long been called the "Ashcan Artist of Appalachia."

It is fascinating to compare Thomason's Green Pastures with the work of another important regionalist, the Louisiana artist John McCrady (1911-1968), who was commissioned in 1939 by Life magazine to portray the 1935 shooting of Huey Long. The intensely focused violence of the figures and event, the limited tonalities, and hyper-realism of McCrady's The Shooting of Huey Long (1939) is a distinctive contrast to the bravura painting technique and vibrant color of Green Pastures' commemorative pageantry. Yet both works are individual creative masterpieces representing critical historical events in the South, as well as monuments of American scene painting in the 1930s.

Thomason probably attended the Green Pastures Rally in September 1936. He depicted the scene in his typically bold, expressive colors and brushstrokes. However, he was also a faithful recorder of the event as revealed by comparing the painting with contemporary photographs of the scene at Memorial Stadium. Roosevelt shared the stand with the governor of North Carolina and mayor of Charlotte as they dedicated the stadium and demonstrated strong Democratic Party solidarity. The audience filled the sections of the stadium to the left of the speaker's stand and also crowded the infield. The painting captures an important moment in political history. It is an excellent large-scale example of Thomason's individualistic painting style and a powerful example of an American genre that might well be called a "democratic vista." Green Pastures is a first-hand depiction of an important episode in twentieth-century Southern history. Alexander Moore with Roberta Sokolitz

Charlotte and Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation. "Survey and Research Report on The American Legion Memorial Stadium (1936)."

James, A. Everette, Jr., and others. Eugene Healan Thomason: The Ashcan Artist of Appalachia. New York: Vantage Press, 1987.

James, A. Everett, Jr. Eugene Healan Thomason, 1895-1972: The Ashcan Artist of Appalachia. Marietta, Georgia:  Knoke Galleries, 1987.

McCrady, John and Keith Marshall. John McCrady, 1911-1968. New Orleans Museum of Art, 1975.

Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. "Your Life and Mine, Though We Work in the Mill, the Office or the Store, Can Still Be a Life in Green Pastures and beside Still Waters," Address at the Green Pastures Rally, Charlotte, N.C. September 10, 1936," in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt With a Special Introduction and Explanatory Notes by President Roosevelt, Volume Five, The People Approve (New York: Random House, 1938), 341-48.

"Roosevelt Rainbow." Time Magazine, September 21, 1936.

Shaw, Nancy Rivard. Pictures from Life: The Art of Eugene H. Thomason. Charleston: Charleston Renaissance Gallery, 2002.

Unpublished report at www.cmhpf.ord/Surveys&memorial stadium.html

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 Robert M. Hicklin, Jr. Inc.

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