Interpreting “Gwine to Heaven” by Blanche McVeigh, 1945

This fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, art history major Viktorea Levasheff writes about the 1945 etching and aquatint, Gwine to Heaven, by the well-known Texas printmaker, Blanche McVeigh.

Blanche McVeigh was born in Missouri in 1895, but she grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. She worked a lot with etching and aquatint on paper. Her subjects included New Mexico themes, Fort Worth area landscapes, western themes, and her impression of African American spirituals. Gwine to Heaven, created in 1945, focuses on her interest of African American spirituals. This essay examines attitudes on race in the American South during 1945 and religious beliefs in the South at the time in order to interpret Gwine to Heaven. Background information on McVeigh’s other works, as well as the symbolism she uses, are also helpful in coming to conclusions about what she was trying to communicate in Gwine to Heaven.

Blanche McVeigh (AMerican, 1895-1970),

Blanche McVeigh (AMerican, 1895-1970), “Gwine to Heaven,” 1945. Etching and aquatint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0078.

At the bottom of the composition is a young male figure, who looks to be one of the younger figures. This character has a facial expression of confusion, being intimidated or confronted, and of fear. The figure above him looks slightly older, about twenty years old, and is making a gesture of indignation, unsatisfied acceptance, or surrender. He holds up his hands, (and his wings), as if to signify that he’s given up on something, or has had to accept something without a choice. The third figure is another resembling that of a child; his facial expression is also child-like. This figure peeks from behind the uppermost figure, looking down possibly in fear or confusion. The uppermost male figure is middle-aged. He stands up straight, facing away from the viewer, with an expression of resentment. Seen together, the age differences, facial expressions and postures create a pattern of child-like versus adult emotions.

The reverberating expressions of resentment on the older figures cause us to question: what is being resented? The figures are represented as floating angels, with white robes, and remnants of light placed across the chest and around the head. This gives off the impression of strong religious association, leading us to the history of African Americans during times of slavery, when Christianity was the established religion everywhere in the country. Slaves were brought up around Christian beliefs. Everyone, including African Americans, was made to believe in striving for Christian righteousness. For African Americans, reaching full spiritual enlightenment, or reaching anything, was purposefully made difficult.

We might wonder if the feelings of resentment expressed in the print are geared towards rejecting a set of Christian beliefs. During times of slavery, African Americans weren’t given a choice with anything, this included what religion they associated with. They were made to believe that by being slaves, they were following biblical teachings. Slave masters justified slave ownership by acknowledging the bible’s discussion about slaves and masters. It was believed that God created black people to be slaves, and that being slaves was their highest God-given capability. White supremacists believed that African Americans had little to no potential beyond being slaves. This history makes the facial expressions a lot more understandable.

In a more modern context, in 1945, the feelings of resentment would likely not have been geared towards religion as much as they would have been geared towards racism. In 1945, racial disputes were still a major problem in American society. Racial tensions in the South were especially high. McVeigh was from Fort Worth, which is part of the Southern-most part of the country. The composition and the title of the piece suggests a struggle with Christianity and a struggle toward reaching spiritual enlightenment. In 1945, the person/people represented in Gwine to Heaven would have been struggling to reach acceptance in American society. The real struggle would have been to overcome the challenges of racism. Emotions that would have typically come with this struggle would have been intimidation, fear, resentment—precisely the emotions expressed on the faces of the figures.

McVeigh was white, and her intended audience would have been mostly southern white Americans. This lets one know that the artist could not have been able to relate to the figures, but she could express sympathy for them. Sympathy is expressed by how McVeigh places light around the figures’ heads, to give the effect of halos. All of the figures are in the guise of flying angels, which are heavenly figures, which were not figures to be ridiculed. McVeigh wanted her audience to be sympathetic toward her figures and toward African Americans of the time.

The title of the piece, written in dialect, suggests that the intended audience was particularly the southern population. For centuries, the ancestors of the southerners dwelled on the biblical concept that anything associated with darkness was evil and worthy of death. For too long, this concept was used as an excuse to harm black (“dark-skinned”) people, and to forbid them from even entering a church. A lot of the books of the Bible emphasize the prohibition of anything associated with darkness. McVeigh objects to this convention by dressing the figures in her print in white robes and angel wings, which clearly distinguish them from the black background. McVeigh has communicated to the viewers that the figures are not part of the darkness, but far from it. The lit halos contribute to this as well.

Blanche McVeigh (American, 1895-1970),

Blanche McVeigh (American, 1895-1970), “Triflin’ Woman,” n.d. Aquatint, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, 1941.6.23.

McVeigh’s composition attests to the fact that African Americans are just as worthy as anyone else of striving toward spiritual enlightenment and social equality. In other pieces, such as Triflin’ Woman, McVeigh depicts a black family in a moment of normal, regular life. The trifling woman wears a fancy dress and heals, while engaging in a conversation with two men. Next to them, another woman holds a bag atop her head, and a baby in her arm. Another small child stands by her side. With this piece, McVeigh has shown a black group engaged in normal activity. Typically, most other artists in the area would have shown a white group engaged in this activity, believing that black people would not have been worthy of the subject matter. This piece would have communicated to southerners that black people are normal human beings and they have normal lives.

Reference:

Sonstegard, V. (2015, April 24). Blanche McVeigh: Printmaker, Gallery Owner, Educator.

Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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