Robert Gwathmey

American, 1903–1988

Family Singing, 1956

Oil on canvas

36 x 50 inches

Signed upper left

Gwathmey considered Family Singing to be one of his most important paintings. An eighth-generation Virginian, Gwathmey’s vivid pictorial voice amplified the resonance of the social realist movement by chronicling the effects of the South’s economic turbulence and social injustice. His lifetime commitment to the portrayal of racial inequity was unlikely for a white man educated in the Northeast.

Gwathmey’s use of flat patterns and the unusual juxtapositions of color are critical to Family Singing’s structural coherence. However, it is the inclusion of one of the artist’s favorite themes—music—that becomes the backbone of Family Singing’s aesthetic and emotional cohesiveness. The activity of singing physically connects the three members of the family, and their compositional unity anchors the painting’s expression of domestic normalcy. It would appear that the thriving, almost scene-stealing depiction of what Gwathmey called “vegetation” symbolizes his admiration for the African American family and a belief in their future. Whether he was portraying sharecroppers stooped over in the field, families confronting the daily challenges of racism, or modest domestic moments, Gwathmey’s renderings always celebrated his subject’s inherent dignity.