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James B. Turnbull (1909-1976)

Tobacco Croppers

1942

Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Signed lower right: "Jim Turnbull '42"

Exhibitions:

Jim Turnbull: Paintings, A.C.A. Gallery, New York, NY, May 17 - 30, 1942, no. 23; Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.

Reproduced:

Enduring America (catalogue); Speer, George V. and Arthur D. Hittner, "Enduring America: The Collection of Art & Peggy Hittner," American Art Review, June, 2015, p. 85.

References:

Joe Jones & J.B. Turnbull: Visions of the Midwest in the 1930s (exhibition catalogue, Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, 1987); Coming Home: American Paintings 1930-1950 from the Schoen Collection (Georgia Museum of Art, 2003), pp. 318-19.

Provenance:

Walker Galleries, New York; A.C.A. Galleries, New York; Sotheby's, New York, June 22, 1984 (lot 297); Sandy Carroll, High Falls, New York to 1993; Estate of Sandy Carroll; Michael Owen/Owen Gallery, New York, 1994-1999; acquired from Owen Gallery by Arthur & Peggy Hittner, Natick, MA, February 23, 1999; sold to Tom Boyd, Midland, GA, April, 1999; reacquired from the foregoing, August 5, 2008.

Notes:

Fine original 3-inch gold leaf frame (refinished).

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Fig. 2 - James B. Turnbull, Sorting Tobacco, 1941. Crayon lithograph with scraping printed in black ink on buff wove paper, edition of 30. Size: 11 1/2 x 8 inches (image); 19 1/2 x 15 (sheet). Signed lower right: "Jim Turnbull '41". Collection Woodstock Artists Association and Museum in Woodstock, New York.

     A native of St. Louis, Missouri, James Barre Turnbull studied art at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, the Washington University School of Fine Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He exhibited widely from the mid-Thirties, both commercially (Walker and A.C.A. Galleries in New York City) and institutionally (St. Louis Museum of Art and others). In 1938, Turnbull was appointed director of the WPA Arts Project in Missouri. The artist executed WPA post office mural commissions in Fredericktown (The Lead Belt, 1939) and Jackson, Missouri (Loading Cattle, 1940). During World War II, Turnbull served as an artist and war correspondent for Life Magazine, primarily on the Pacific front. In the early Forties, he moved from his native Missouri to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where he became associated with the Woodstock art colony.

     Turnbull’s best works combined Regionalist themes with strong Social Realist overtones as aptly demonstrated by this powerful yet sensitive portrayal of three generations of poverty and hopelessness in rural America. Sharecroppers and miners were among his most common subjects. "Workers, agrarian and industrial, represented the South for Jim Turnbull," wrote one critic commenting on a 1942 exhibit of Turnbull's work at A.C.A. Galleries in New York City which included this painting. "The St. Louis artist is interested in showing the good and the bad—the personally felt beauties of the landscape, the miseries of the sharecropper, the erasure of racial prejudice in the factories."* Sharecroppers echoes the heartbreaking photographs documenting the plight of the rural poor taken by Dorothea Lange and others under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration during the period from 1935 to 1944 (see, e.g., Fig. 1). A related lithograph in the collection of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum in Woodstock, New York, Sorting Tobacco (1941), features two of the four figures appearing in Tobacco Croppers (Fig. 2).

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Art News, June/July, 1942, p. 40.

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Fig. 1 - Dorothea Lange, Near Douglas, Georgia. Sharecroppers grade the cured leaves on the porches and sort them to go to the tobacco auction, July, 1938.  U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs.

Previously in the Collection:

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James B. Turnbull, Miner's Lunch, 1948. Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 36 inches. Signed lower right: "James B. Turnbull 48". This work was exhibited by Turnbull at the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of Art in the winter of 1948-49. Collection of Lee and Barbara Maimon (as of 2009).

Recollections

     It was on a gallery cruise during mid-February of 1999 along Madison Avenue on the Upper East side that we visited Owen Gallery on 75th Street (just off Madison).  Although it would close a decade later, Owen was then a preeminent dealer in American paintings, a place where we’d seen all manner of unaffordable works (such as Thomas Hart Benton oils).  After ogling the masterworks on the main floor, we were directed to the lower level where a selection of more affordable treasures were hung. It was there that we discovered James Turnbull’s Tobacco Croppers, a minor masterpiece at the intersection of Regionalism and Social Realism.  

 

    Smitten, we discussed the painting with Associate Director Brian Paul Clamp, who shared with us what little he knew about the work.  The following week, he got back to us by letter, offering us a reduced price (absurdly reasonable in retrospect) for a painting of this quality.  The painting had been one of a group of artworks acquired five years earlier by the gallery’s owner, Michael Owen, from the estate of a very close friend. I had the sense that this was something the gallery was particularly eager to part with (which was fine with me), so we elected to take the plunge.  

 

    These were the early years of our collecting, the years in which we addressed our penchant for buying by tempering it with occasional sales (which, of course, fed subsequent purchases).  This process worked well for a time, allowing us to educate ourselves as we continually honed our collection.  At its rather modest peak, I advertised several times in the monthly antique and arts publication Maine Antique Digest.    

 

   It was in response to one of these ads (for a painting by a Philadelphia artist) that I received an inquiry from a Georgia banker.  He expressed an interest in the advertised painting and inquired about other works that we might have available for sale.  I responded (somewhat reluctantly) by furnishing a photograph of Tobacco Croppers.  In the end, he bought both paintings.  Though we’d made a nice profit, I immediately suffered seller’s remorse.  Of all the works we’d ever sold, I most regretted this one.

 

    Nine years later, at the height of the Recession, I got a telephone call from that same Georgia banker. Financial conditions compelled him to consider the sale of Tobacco Croppers.  Was I interested in reacquiring it?  I could barely contain myself!  After some negotiation, I was able to repatriate Tobacco Croppers, returning it triumphantly (and permanently) to our walls.