PHILIP EVERGOOD (1901–1973)
Fat of the Land, about 1940–41
Oil on canvas, 28 x 46 in.
Signed and inscribed (at lower right): Philip Evergood; (on the stretcher): FAT OF THE LAND
RECORDED: “We Dare to Choose: Three from ‘Museums Choice’ Exhibit at Addison Gallery,” The Andover Townsman, March 21, 1946 // John I. H. Baur, Philip Evergood (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1975), no. 57 illus.
EXHIBITED: Art Institute of Chicago, 52nd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings & Sculpture, October–January 1941–42, no. 67 // Addison Gallery, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, 1946, Museums Choice, no. 27
EX COLL: the artist; to [ACA Gallery, New York]; to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1941; to sale, Christie’s New York, September 8, 2004, no. 25; to private collection, until the present
At first glance, Fat of the Land is a landscape painting in a relatively straightforward style. On closer inspection, however, the scene shows internal contradictions. It is a picture of two farms separated by a narrow road that divides the canvas with a strong diagonal line. To the right there is a line of tall, healthy trees paralleled by telephone and electric power lines. To the left the trees are stunted and blasted, with a large tree devoid of any signs of life in the foreground. The grass on the right is lush and green; on the left the grass is brown, withered like the trees. How can two neighboring farms be so different? The explanation is in the group of four small figures standing on the left-hand farm. They are an African American farmer, dressed in overalls, his wife and two small children, apparently a son and daughter. They stand in front of a ramshackle farm building, open to the elements with a half door hanging open off its hinges. All the buildings on their farm are weathered grey. An rusting plow, the old-fashioned kind that would have been horse-drawn, sits abandoned behind an outbuilding. On the other side of the road Evergood has painted a scene of rural prosperity and ease. The fields are shades of green, the trees tall and erect, the cluster of farm buildings freshly painted red. Farm animals, cows and goats, graze happily. The power lines stretching the length of the property bring electricity to the farm. The phrase “fat of the land” comes from Genesis Chapter 45, verses 17 and 18: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Tell your brothers, ‘Do as follows: Load your animals and return to the land of Canaan. Then bring your father and your families and return to me. I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you shall eat from the fat are the land.” The reference is unmistakable. Just as the trip to Egypt ultimately resulted in slavery for the children of Israel, the passage to America resulted in slavery for the Africans. Evergood’s African American farmers can see the fat of the land, but it is not theirs to enjoy. The road that separates the two farms is, in terms of formal composition, a strong diagonal. More important is its meaning. It is a road that divides America in two, a color line that cannot be crossed.