DescriptionJOHN MCCRADY (American, 1911-1968)
Steamboat 'Round the Bend, 1946
Oil on canvas
78 x 168 inches (198.1 x 426.7 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: John McCrady 46
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED DALLAS FAMILY COLLECTION
Delmonico's Restaurant, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1946;
New Orleans Auction Galleries, Inc., New Orleans, Louisiana, March 22, 1997, lot 129;
Private collection, Dallas, acquired from the above.
In 1946 when John McCrady painted this extraordinary mural Steamboat 'Round the Bend, a nostalgic depiction of teenage boys frolicking along the banks of the Mississippi River, he was already being lauded as the "first-rate" painter from the South, "a star risen from the bayous."1 Raised in Mississippi and Louisiana, McCrady enrolled in the New Orleans Art School in 1932 and, the following year, won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York. Here, his teachers Thomas Hart Benton and Kenneth Hays Miller introduced him to the aesthetics of American Scene painting, specifically Regionalism, with its images of everyday life on farms and in small towns. From Benton, McCrady appropriated a type of figure, lean and gesturing, and from Miller, the multi-stage technique of layering oil paint over a tempera ground to create heightened luminosity. Like these Regionalists and others to whom he was compared, including John Stuart Curry and Grant Wood, McCrady emphasized in his paintings a dialogue between country folk and the land, often dramatizing this relationship by positioning his figures like actors against a flattened backdrop of fields and sky.
Although most of the Regionalists looked to the Midwest for visual inspiration, McCrady distinguished himself as a painter of the South, in particular, of African-American religious subjects, of pastimes in rural Mississippi, and of street activity in New Orleans' French Quarter, where he established his studio in 1934. His early paintings based on African-American spirituals, like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Judgment Day, and Heaven Bound, first gained him accolades as an "interpret[er] of a purely American theme."2 Oxford, Mississippi, where McCrady had lived as a teenager, also provided rich fodder for his rural Southern imagery: landscapes featuring church suppers, political rallies, families strolling along dusty roads, and crowds outside the general store. Favorable reviews in Time and Newsweek of his exhibitions at the Boyer Galleries in New York and Philadelphia led to three major awards in 1939: a Guggenheim fellowship to paint African-American genre scenes, an assignment from Life magazine to illustrate a pivotal moment in 20th-century history - McCrady's only social realist work, the action-filled, bloody The Shooting of Huey Long - and a commission from the Procurement Division of the Treasury Section of Fine Arts for a mural for the Armory, Mississippi, post office - a panoramic view of the town's main street in 1888.
McCrady's most famous mural, the current lot, Steamboat 'Round the Bend, was commissioned in 1945 by Marie LaFranca, owner of the upscale Delmonico's restaurant on Saint Charles Avenue in New Orleans. Like its parent restaurant in New York City, the New Orleans Delmonico's had opened in the 19th century and served the most prominent local clientele, courting them with its lush interior and signature steaks, oysters, and Italian cuisine. By the 1940s, the restaurant needed a facelift; while supervising a new decorating scheme for the restaurant, Mrs. LaFranca asked McCrady, New Orleans' celebrity artist, to create a large painting to hang behind the bar. "McCrady was paid with dinners, drinks, and an unknown fee for his work, which took a year to complete."3 For the mural's subject, he selected the historic 1870 steamboat race between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee on the Mississippi River, showing the moment the paddle wheelers, en route from New Orleans to Memphis, are passing through Natchez. Steamboat 'Round the Bend is a composite of images McCrady was working on at the same time in 1945: his oil painting Boys Playing is nearly identical to the mural's right grouping of boys on the bank of the river, and his lithograph The Robert E. Lee and The Natchez depicts a similar scene, but with African-Americans celebrating along the shore as the two boats race. McCrady also executed a preparatory drawing for Steamboat 'Round the Bend, as well as a lithograph, further indicating the importance of the subject to him.
With its particular iconography, Steamboat 'Round the Bend captures a romanticized vision of the South. Anchoring the center of the composition are the steamboats, symbols of a post-Civil War industrializing South. By the 1860s, the steamboat had become so associated with speed that steamboat racing emerged as a popular pastime. The 1870 race between the Natchez and Robert E. Lee, ultimately resulting in the Lee's victory, marked a pinnacle of the sport, as it attracted newspaper coverage and betting not merely in major Southern cities, but in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, and Paris. In Steamboat 'Round the Bend, McCrady further underscores the prosperity of the South through the lush, enveloping landscape - the wide Mississippi and verdant fields with Spanish moss-trimmed trees. In addition, his choice of Natchez as a backdrop for the race is significant. One of the oldest and wealthiest cities in the Mississippi Valley, Natchez had been strategically founded on a bluff overlooking the river, ensuring its role as a major center of commerce, and during the mid 19th century, cotton and sugarcane planters built enormous mansions here. McCrady features one of these plantations, Rosalie, a stately Neoclassical landmark perched above the less grand Natchez-Under-the-Hill, a row of bars for sailors and frontiersmen docking at the port.4 Omitting any signs of working-class unseemliness, however, McCrady focuses instead on a wholesome pack of schoolboys cavorting in the foreground - some trying to catch a dog, others wrestling on piggyback, and others playing leapfrog - consummate signs of an Edenic South.
Complementing McCrady's message of the bounty and community of the South is his strong compositional design for Steamboat 'Round the Bend. McCrady was a masterful painter of clouds, intentionally modeling his after the dramatic skies of Albert Pinkham Ryder, and, here, teal and aquamarine clouds form broad abstracted patterns that merge with the black ship steam and turquoise river below. This stylization of nature, almost to a surreal effect, recalls his WPA posters, as well as many of his Mississippi paintings, such as Oxford on the Hill, where he encircles the town with swirling ribbons of clouds and waves. The foreground of Steamboat 'Round the Bend functions as a stage with gesturing youths playacting before the backdrop of the Mississippi. Yet McCrady also treats this stage, as it sweeps into the bluff on the left, as another flattened pattern that bounds the shapes of sky and water. Ultimately, the mural reads like a giant patchwork quilt, evoking the rich layers and interconnected relationships of the South.
1"Art: New Season," Time, October 18, 1937.
2Herald Tribune, August 22, 1937, review of McCrady's exhibition at the Boyer Gallery, New York.
3E. Lagasse, Emeril's Delmonico: A Restaurant with a Past, New York, 2005, p. 19.
4J. Bonner, "John McCrady," Historic New Orleans Collection, 2010, online article, p.2. The art historian Judith H. Bonner identifies the plantation as Rosalie because of its distinctive placement on the bluff overlooking Natchez-Under-the-Hill. As Rosalie does not have classical columns surrounding its perimeter or three dormer windows on each side, McCrady was likely imaging a composite of the many mansions in the area, including Dunleith (which does have such columns but is further from the banks of the Mississippi).
Lined canvas with slight undulation in upper right corner; tiny pinhole in upper central teal cloud; slight frame abrasion along left edge. In 1990, Richard D. White, Conservation of Paintings, New Orleans, restored the painting to museum and conservation standards. At that time, the painting was cleaned, lined (using Beva 371 film and linen canvas), stretched on a conservation stretcher, in-painted, and varnished; under UV exam, appears to be scattered in-painting throughout composition, including areas in smoke and sky in upper left quadrant, small spots in foliage and water in lower left quadrant, multiple minor dots in ground below and around figures in lower right quadrant, and areas in water and particularly in sky in upper right quadrant.
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