Still-Life: Past Revisited
Eldzier Cortor (American, 1916–2015)
152.4 x 167.6 cm (60 x 66 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Frances Vrachos Gallery (Gallery 144)
In this monumental still life, Eldzier Cortor portrayed objects that evoke the lives of Americans, especially African Americans, from the 1920s through the 1960s. Twenty-three years after he painted Still-Life: Past Revisited, Cortor wrote:
“This still life was painted at a reflective time of my life, which accounted for the composition’s theme…The Bessie Smith poster reflected in the mirror, Josephine Baker snapshot, Coca Cola Americana wall sign, Madam C. J. Walker fan, the Last Trail Indian statue, Big Ben clock, Buddha incense burner, Okeh race records, Philco cathedral radio and pin ball game machine, newspaper headlines, etc., etc. are all mementoes and icons of taste of the times and part of my early life’s Black experience. Each object has a story of its own. Hopefully people will relate to this work, add memories and reminiscences of their own.” [Eldzier Cortor to Carol Troyen, March 24, 1996, curatorial files, Art of the Americas Department, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]
Cortor furthermore expressed the hope that his painting would be appreciated for its mood, composition, materials, and technique.
In a crowded, sunlit room―an attic-like space― Cortor portrayed ordinary household items, iconic objects that would be remembered by most Americans living during this period such as the Westclox Big Ben clock (first sold in 1909) and the Coca Cola sign, and images that relate more specifically to important people and incidents in black history. Cortor divided Still-Life: Past Revisited in three vertical sections. The two segments on the left contain commonplace artifacts that were (and remain) a part of most Americans’ experience. On the far left Cortor depicted a tower of old household furnishings―chairs, tables, stools, night tables, a wash board, and a brass bed frame. Beside this precarious pile of furniture is an étagère displaying books, dishes, an oil lamp, a framed photograph, a coffee pot, and a plant. Resting on the top is a reproduction of James Earle Fraser’s bronze sculpture End of the Trail, first modeled in 1894 and later displayed at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. This immensely popular image shows a defeated American Indian slumped over his horse, the last of a dying race (Fraser, like Cortor, had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago).
On the right, Cortor depicted a collection of objects and images rich in associations and particularly resonant for African Americas during the twentieth century. At the lower right, resting on a pin ball game machine, are objects dealing with economic accomplishment and education, including a Madam C. J. Walker fan, Abbott’s Monthly Magazine, and a Philco cathedral radio, over which is draped a pennant for Hampton Institute. Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), the daughter of slaves, was an entrepreneur who built an empire developing hair products for black women. The first African-American female millionaire, Walker encouraged other black businesswomen, campaigned to make lynching a federal crime, and donated large sums of money to black causes. Robert S. Abbott (1870-1940), publisher of the short-lived Abbott’s Monthly Magazine, had a direct impact on Cortor’s life as well as an important role in black history. An African-American lawyer, newspaper publisher, and self-made millionaire, Abbott founded The Chicago Defender in 1905. The most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, the Defender was avidly read in Cortor’s childhood Chicago home, and the newspaper’s cartoons, especially “Bungleton Green,” inspired him to draw. Abbott had graduated from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) a historically black and Native American college that had been founded in Virginia in 1868 to educate freed slaves. Cortor’s painted banner represented pride in the school and its many accomplished graduates.
The next group of objects refers to the outstanding contributions of black musicians and composers, known through their live performances and through broadcasts over radios such as the depression-era Philco model at lower right. “Erskine Tat…” on the bass drum probably refers to Erskine Tate (1895-1978), a jazz violinist and bandleader during the 1920s of the Vendome Orchestra in Chicago, an ensemble for which Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) played trumpet and Fats Waller (1904-1943) played piano. The letters on the drum might also bring to mind two other jazz giants―Erskine Hawkins (1914-1993), trumpet player, big band leader, and composer of “Tuxedo Junction,” one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, and Art Tatum (1909-1956), a virtuoso jazz pianist. Several of the records stacked on the dressing table bear the Okeh label, a recording studio in Chicago, the center of jazz in the 1920s, which made so-called “Race” (African-American) recordings, including performances by Armstrong and Duke Ellington (1899-1974). The poster reflected in the oval mirror shows singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937) as “The Empress of the Blues.” One of the highest paid black entertainers of the 1920s, Smith headed her own shows, which often included as many as forty troupers, and toured in her own railroad car. Two photographs are wedged in the mirror’s frame―one is a snapshot of a father and son―possibly Cortor and his father―in front of an old car. The other is an image of Josephine Baker (1906-1975), a dancer, singer, and actress, who became a world-famous entertainer and the first African-American female to star in a major motion picture. Baker also involved herself in political causes―she was the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de Guerre, for her work in the French Resistance during World War II, and she later supported the civil rights movement in the United States by refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences, working with the NAACP, and speaking at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963.
Just below the likenesses of these women, Cortor used several Chicago Defender newspapers, encircling the bouquet of sunflowers, to refer to other leading African Americans and to important events in black history. One large-print headline, “Demps … Wills Sign,” alludes to boxer Harry Wills’s challenge bout with Jack Dempsey, World Heavyweight Champion from 1919 to 1926. Both Wills, the World Colored Heavyweight Champion, and Dempsey signed their contracts for the fight, but the bout never took place. Dempsey did not receive a $100,000 guarantee promised to him by the promoter; many historians believe that Wills was not given a chance to compete for the heavyweight championship because of his race. Another headline refers to the Scottsboro Boys―nine black teenage boys who were accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. Eight of the nine were quickly sentenced to death, and the case became a cause célèbre in American race relations. After mass protests in the United States and Europe, a series of retrials ensued, resulting in two decisions by the U. S. Supreme Court― one ordering a new trial on the grounds of inadequate defense and the other ruling that two defendants had been denied a fair trial because of Alabama’s systematic exclusions of African Americans from its juries.
Beneath the Scottsboro Trial headline is a reference to Bessie Coleman (1893-1926), the first black female licensed pilot. Coleman had been encouraged by Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott to study in France when no American school would teach her to fly. Known as “Brave Bessie” or “Queen Bess”, she was a popular “barnstorming” stunt flyer for five years before her death at thirty-four. Cortor may have been especially aware of Coleman because his father, John Cortor, was at one time a private pilot. Another headline reads “Garvey Rules From …” Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican-born publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator, was a proponent of the “Back-to-Africa” movement. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the most influential and formidable black organization of its time, and the Black Star Line to promote the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands. The UNIA advocated for a universal black nation that was eventually to be led by Garvey. Amongst these headlines, Cortor also includes a glimpse of a comic strip, the format so important to him as he began to make his way as an artist.
The wrapped sunflowers may refer to the southern part of the United States, where Cortor’s family lived―in Richmond, Virginia―before joining the Great Migration and moving to Chicago in 1917. Cortor had depicted sunflowers in another work, including them in the hair of the elegant young black woman in Southern Gate (1942-43, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C.), whose title indicates its geographic location. The pot-bellied stove wedged behind the dresser also appears in another Cortor painting, Americana (1946, collection Miriam and Stephen Cortor). The play of mirrors and reflected images was a favorite theme for the painter; see for example, Room No. V [2007.2], which incorporates Cortor’s characteristic use of newspapers and other printed material as well. Certainly Still-Life: Past Revisited rewards close scrutiny in its endless collection of artifacts and images.
Still-Life: Past Revisited is a tour de force in technique. The artist created a rich surface texture by applying many layers of paint to convey the age of the objects. He scraped and repainted areas to make the objects and setting appear distressed and old. Cortor used color to unify and enliven his composition, repeating, for example, touches of red in the “red hot” pinball machine, Coca Cola sign, Bessie Smith poster, and a few pieces of furniture and everyday objects.
Cortor’s painting is part of a tradition stretching back to the seventeenth-century, when Vanitas still lifes included objects whose significance was crucial to the interpretation of the painting; see for example Vanitas Still Life [58.357] by the Flemish artist Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. Frequently painted in trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) style, these Vanitas paintings often included such objects as a watch or an hour glass to suggest the passage of time as well items with more abstruse meanings and printed or written documents. Informed viewers would have been able to analyze the components of the painting to arrive at the artist’s theme concerning the ephemeral quality of life. While Cortor did not attempt to work in a trompe l’oeil manner, he did paint realistically, and he intended the viewer to scrutinize the items in his still life for their meanings. As in the Vanitas paintings, Cortor alluded to the passage of time through the clock, the used furniture, the short-lived sunflowers, the fleeting music issuing from the radio, and the patina of age he achieved through his technique. Cortor expanded his still life into a history painting, choosing objects and printed material that evoke the tribulations and triumphs of African Americans in the twentieth century. Painted when he was fifty-seven years old, Still-Life: Past Revisited shows the artist at the height of his powers looking back on his life as a black man during a time of great change in American society.
Until 1995, collection of the artist; by October 1995, with Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York; October 1995, sold by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery to John Axelrod, Boston; 2011, sold by Axelrod to the MFA. (Accession date: June 22, 2011)
The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection
© Eldzier Cortor; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY