Eldzier Cortor, Southern Landscape

Eldzier Cortor, Southern Landscape, 1941, oil on masonite, 44-1/8 x 35-3/4 x 3-3/8 inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)


Eldzier Cortor, Southern Landscape

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Key Points

  • At first glance, in this image we see a woman prepared for a picnic on a bright day in a verdant setting. A closer look at the contents of her picnic basket and the background, however, suggests a narrative of loss. Flooding, graves, and multiple crosses fill the landscape behind her, a scene to which she has her back turned. Her basket includes a picture of a man, possibly a loved one no longer present or with whom she hopes to reunite. 
  • In the late 1930s and 40s, record flooding in the American South forced relocation and migration upon many people. Within this historical context, Eldzier Cortor’s painting presents us with ambiguity: is it about hope or despair in the face of devastation such as flooding and dislocation? Is the woman mourning from the events behind her or looking towards a hopeful new future elsewhere, or possibly both?
  • Cortor’s work is often identified as a type of surrealism, which typically presents unexpected juxtapositions and evokes scenes of dreams or the imagination. This classification is evidenced in Southern Landscape by the contrast between the woman in the foreground and the landscape behind her, along with the distinctive coloration of both the sky and water.

Go Deeper

Learn more about Eldzier Cortor from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Read an oral history from Eldzier Cortor, in which he talks about Southern Landscape and another image he made in response to the flooding he witnessed in the South.

More to Think About

Throughout his career, Cortor turned repeatedly to the Black female as his subject. Knowing that many people lost homes and livelihoods in the floods of the American South, consider the choice and impact of representing a singular female in this scene rather than a family or a group of people. Can you imagine how this image might read if he had chosen a different protagonist?

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