Purchased just last year, this painting was done by an artist not quite as well-known as Aaron Douglas, but just as important nonetheless. Eldzier Cortor was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1916. At a very young age, his family (like many African American families at that time) left the Jim Crow south and moved up north, seeking better opportunities. Cortor’s family ended up in Chicago and it was there that he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving his degree in 1936. He was also one of many artists employed by the WPA’s Federal Art Project under the New Deal.
A painter and a printmaker, Cortor was best known for his elegant paintings of black (typically nude) women. Our painting, Southern Landscape, done in 1941, shows a beautiful and introspective black woman standing in the foreground. Behind her, the artist has depicted an imaginary South after the devastating floods of the 1930s. In the far distance, we see homes submerged half-way underwater. She leans against a brick wall that separates her from a cemetery, evidenced by a spattering of tombstones. As she stares off, she grasps onto her necklace, to which a cross (or crucifix) is attached. In her right hand she holds wild flowers. Beside her we see a basket, which we can assume contains objects that belong to her. Among the basket of possessions lies a small framed photograph of a young man in military uniform (which happens to be a self-portrait of the artist). For Eldzier Cortor, the black female figure represented strength, beauty, resilience, and the continuance of life. When you apply that concept to this work, we see an ideal beauty amidst tragedy and ruin and although there is a somber tone to this scene, the artist has given us a taste of hope. Our main character - the beautiful, black woman - is a source of strength. She is resilient. Perhaps she has survived the tragic floods that took so many lives and ruined so much property and was able to grab those few and precious objects that now sit beside her in that basket? Does the flower in her hand represent the dawn of a new day? #VMFA #arteducation #EldzierCortor #AmericanArt #AfricanAmericanArt #SouthernLandscape #