Rediscovered after thirty years, 29 intriguing portraits by Horace Day are featured in the exhibition Style and Identity: Black Alexandria in the 1970s. Ricky McNeil, J.C. Chase, and Walter Hollis are among the young African American Alexandrians who were portrayed in the 1970s by the artist and educator. This distinctive body of work provides us with a unique view into a moment in the history of black Alexandria from the perspective of an important artist and compassionate chronicler of American life.
When Horace Day moved to Alexandria, he was “retired” from a long and distinguished career as an artist and educator. Academically trained at the Art Students League in New York City, Day exhibited an early interest in engaging the people and spirit of his local surroundings. While artist-in-residence at the Henry Street Settlement in New York – an organization that brought arts to the urban poor, he painted “Moe,” a full-length portrait of a young Jewish boy that critic Frederick Fairchild Sherman claimed was a “convincing rendering of the endearing character of an average boy.” The image of a local youth could be considered the beginning of Day’s lifelong interest in exploring the beauty of everyday Americans that resulted in the extraordinary series of portraits considered here.
In 1936 Day moved south, where for the next 31 years he explored American regional peoples, cultures and landscapes from the Sea Islands, Georgia, to Staunton, Virginia. The December 1938 issue of Art News recognized Day’s work as “conspicuous for his gentle humor, its appreciation of the tropical sky and atmosphere. It is fraught with sympathetic interest in the people of the South, in their quiet, slow life and in the architecture of their homes…” In Augusta, Georgia, and Beaufort, South Carolina, Day became engaged with African American subjects as an integral part of the culture of the American south. He painted portraits, landscapes, still life imagery and impressionistic cityscapes. Day captured the charm and old-world ambiance of southern architecture as well as the character of local inhabitants. Day’s work is emblematic of the spirit of regionalism that emerged in American art in the 1930s. This highly influential genre celebrated the flavors of the nation’s various regions and sought to highlight and explore a uniquely American cultural identity. Rural culture, often considered to be more authentically American, became a major subject as artists attempted to ennoble everyday life.
Day was clearly attracted to black life in the South, as many of his works feature African Americans. We find that his particular interest in blacks as a subject of portraiture took hold during his years in Staunton, Virginia, while he and his wife, artist Elizabeth Nottingham Day, were on the faculty at Mary Baldwin College. (Continued…)