The mural, a reflection of the long, flat cotton fields of the area, is an outstanding example of representational art, from the light brown earth color to the clothes the people are wearing. When looking at the painting, one can see a row of low hills in the distance that forms a horizon line while closer up, pickers work at the never-ending task of filling the large sacks. Rows of cotton plants march from back to front, providing a rhythmic beat to the composition. Clouds invade the clear blue of the sky, mimicking the soft, white cotton. In the right corner is a house fronted by two Lombardy poplars, and farther back there is a barn where two horses wait to be hooked to a cotton wagon nearby.
Eight people stretch across the field in various positions reflecting their endeavors, or, in two cases, lack of endeavors, as is evidenced by the young woman in the bonnet on the far left. She stares into space, perhaps dreaming of another time and place, the cotton sack only an ornament at her side. There is also a younger blonde girl on the right who isn't working. She seems to have been placed in the painting to add youth and as a shape to balance the composition. The only other woman in the picture works diligently alongside the men as they extract the cotton from the plants.
While the painting is well executed and enjoyable to look at, it may seem a bit misleading to some. It is generally understood that people don't pick cotton from fresh, green plants. The time appears to be more like midsummer than autumn. Since the overall color system is predominantly on the cool side, the green, however, works better as a color for the painting, and that after all is what is important.Hull continued that the clothing worn was a further indication of the historic properties of the mural. He asserted that women still wore long cotton dresses in the fields in the early 1930s, the time of the painting. He added that during the Depression years, people in agriculture were sometimes better off than others, and "entire families of small landowners congregated in the fields to harvest..."
A personal note here, none of the women in my mother's families were still wearing long dresses in the fields in the 1930s; Texas women working in the fields would wear men's trousers or mid-calf length skirts. I will also note that even though my mother's and my father's families were "small landowners" raising cotton, they clearly were not among the 'better off.' I recall Papa saying he waited in line with a shovel to dig ditches. I suppose better off is relative, as they had chickens, cows, pigs, and vegetable gardens, and thus, at least had milk, eggs, and vegetables, with the occasional meat if you had enough extra animals to slaughter one--particularly a chicken which could be replenished easier than could cows or pigs.
Van West points to the young girl being "well-dressed, with combed hair and no head covering--far from the reality of child labor in the cotton fields." I can attest to Texas girls would have been wearing a wide-brimmed hat or bonnet, and long sleeves, particularly those who were blonde, while outside working.
The adult women are shown as distracted and of little help to the men when the opposite was true: tenant women worked as hard in the fields as their husbands, brothers, or sons.
To give the artist his due, however, his mural is the only extant one in the South to show a white woman actually picking cotton.I am thinking the truth might lie somewhere in between these two extremes. I agree that the women, and the girl, would have been wearing protection against the sun. Before "tan" became so important to women, fair-skinned women knew that sun produced freckles and wrinkles and it was avoided.
Apparently, Van West makes the case for tenant farmers with the Hardeman County statistics, and yes, all women worked hard in the fields--not just tenants. My maternal grandfather was a landowner, raising cotton and wheat, and his wife, and his eldest daughter (my mother) worked in the fields alongside him, and in his place when he was able to secure outside work for wages. Because the young woman is momentarily "daydreaming" can we assume she is of no help? Perhaps she, as my grandmother did, looked to the edge of the field to ensure her children were still in the shade on the blanket, napping. Perhaps she indeed sighed, and dreamt of a time when she might not be picking cotton.
What's your take on the mural?