Cartofeminists Review Harry Roseland's Fortuneteller Paintings

While I don't regularly read Mary Greer's Tarot blog, lately the Tarot spirits have once again been bringing her comments to my attention. This time I found a Tarot mention in some blog called "Feministe", written by a creature called "Aunt B", and B was blaming her own absurd notions on America's most popular cartofeminist, Mary K. Greer.

So, Greer wrote a piece on July 19 of this year on the popular genre artist of a century ago, Harry Herman Roseland. She called Roseland probably "the most significant painter of American cartomancers". One wonders what the list of competitors might be for that title, and also there could be a difference between being the most significant painter, and painting the most significant work.

Before we start with the analysis of what the cartofems have said about Roseland's work, let's examine the significant artist and his pertinent paintings.

Harry Herman Roseland was born c. 1867, in Brooklyn New York. Most bios emphasize Roseland's somewhat parochial outlook, as he never traveled or trained in Europe, and was mainly self-taught, and content to remain close to home. Roseland seems to have understood that his best chance for success was to use his considerable illustrative skill to depict what was familiar to him.

Roseland thus specialized in painting what are called "genre" pictures, or scenes of everyday life, which are elevated from being glorified postcards by the respective skill of the artist in question. Roseland is considered one of the best American genre artists.

One identifying characteristic of his early work especially is his focus on depicting scenes of the lives of African-Americans. These are almost all domestic scenes, showing African-American families in various aspects of their post-Civil-War home lives.

In addition, Roseland painted a large number of works, done over a decade or so, showing various indoor scenes of the same African-American fortune-teller, doing various readings for genteel, young, white women. The young women are well-dressed, with period large hats and parasols, all very beautiful, and they show various attitudes towards the fortuneteller, depending in part on what kind of reading (palm or card or tea leaves) they are receiving. The fortuneteller is depicted as being of modest means, and generally appears to be a domestic servant.

Roseland achieved a good deal of success for many years. In 1913, perhaps tiring of painting scenes showing domestic tranquility—or mildly amusing domestic sitcoms—he created his most controversial and best known work, The Higest Bidder, which shows a young black woman and her small child being sold into slavery. In 1913 New York art society, such a work offended many sensibilities, in spite of its spare and extremely tasteful depiction, and the work was rejected from a planned showing at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Roseland was told by members of the Art Committee of the Institute that his painting "could not be accepted because it tended to keep alive those memories which 'had better be forgotten'".

While Roseland, who died in 1950, continued to paint, he began to fall out of favor after the 1913 incident, and also as his own focus changed to depicting things such as beach scenes from Coney Island, which were not nearly as popular as his earlier work.

The Highest Bidder is now well known because it was recently purchased by Oprah Winfrey, who says it is her favorite painting, and inspires her because it reminds her of who she is, and where she came from.

When Mary Greer decided to report on Roseland's work on her blog, initially she didn't do much more than show some of the fortuneteller paintings, and provide some links. The comments that followed were generally expressions of appreciation, and little analysis was offered. That changed when a comment came in from someone calling herself Aunt B, who pointed out that she was reviewing the works over at her blog, Feministe.

As you will see, Aunt B feels a lot of things about Tarot, and Tarot reading, for example she says "there's a lot about it as an experience that's appealing to [Aunt B] as a woman". On the one hand, she says she can "speak with authority" because as a reader she knows more than her client. On the other hand, despite this chasm of authority, she claims she likes the "intimacy" she can build with a stranger in a Tarot reading.

And she feels that quality of intimacy is well depicted in the Roseland series of fortuneteller paintings. Aunt B says, identifying with the authority power she says is appealing for women: "The African-American woman is the one with the power, with the literacy to read the cards in a way the white woman can’t." And there's the intimacy thing, too, as she points out "they both lean over the cards, their heads curved in towards each other."

But, then, Aunt B began noticing problems, which she says only became apparent to her as she looked at the Roseland fortuneteller paintings as a group, instead of one pleasing portrait. Aunt B doesn't like the fact that it appears the fortuneteller had her knitting work interrupted by the visit of her clients. She also thinks it's rude that the clients keep on their hats, as if they are "still in a potentially public space". And then there is a truly odd view she expresses about the parasols in the pictures:
"And the parasols! Look at how they point towards the reader in so many pictures, reaffirming that no matter what kind of intimacy we might think we’re seeing, there are some strong and potentially violent barriers between them."
And finally, Aunt B is concerned that only through fortunetelling would the white clients ever consider listening to any advice given by a black woman.

When Greer was made aware of Aunt B's comments, she replied:
"Your insights are so helpful...Your material really inspired me."
But, are these comments by Aunt B based in anything other than her hypersensitive "feminist" concerns?

First off, as a general view of things, I question whether the fortuneteller series represents any interest on Roseland's part to consciously make any social commentary (with one possible exception I discuss below). Whereas I think one could make such a case for his scenes of African-American family life, and certainly for a work such as The Highest Bidder, the fortuneteller paintings are obviously formulaic vignettes meant to entertain the people he was selling his paintings to—i.e., the class of people he depicted as the clients of the fortuneteller.

That doesn't mean he couldn't have sought to bite the hand that was feeding him, but the question is whether that sentiment is really evident in the paintings.

For example, is it really rude or a statement of class superiority that the women keep their hats on in the presence of the fortuneteller? Women back at the turn of the 20th century, at least the ones who wore hats, and that included quite a few black women too, often wore their hats indoors, sometimes even at home. But that would be especially true if they were visiting another house, especially for a particular purpose which might not keep them that long. Women of the class depicted in the fortuneteller paintings worked long and hard to get their hair and hat combinations rigged up just so. And, just to be fair to Roseland, he does depict a number of the fortuneteller's clients bareheaded.

Another point, while it is assumed by Aunt B and I suppose many viewers in every case the scenes depicted are the residence of the fortuneteller, we have no way of knowing if the room belongs to her, or is the servant quarters of a property perhaps owned by her employer, or is someplace she's using to do various businesses. The same model used for the fortuneteller paintings also shows up in a Roseland work entitled "The Dressmaker".

As for the parasol theory, again Aunt B's "feminist" instincts lead her quite astray. The vast majority of the fortuneteller paintings show the client parasols pointing either straight to the floor, or away from the fortuneteller! I suppose one could argue the parasol wielders were violently pointing their parasols away from the fortuneteller to show their disapproval.

Lastly, the answer to the question of the form of the fortuneteller's counsel, and whether it is only through a mantic act that her clients allow her to advise them, may be "yes", but is that anything to do with the fortuneteller's race or ethnicity?

Would the fortuneteller's clientele take advice of an important or intimate nature from any person they deemed to be in a much lower social station? And would that be any less true today for people similarly distant in that manner?

Maybe one of the relevant charms of Roseland's fortuneteller series is that it suggests to us that a mantic art like cartomancy has the power to enable a human connection to which society would normally object. The fact that Roseland chose in each of these paintings to show well-off white women being aided and counseled by a poor black woman, suggests he was hoping to communicate the idea to his own white customers that a lot of them already accepted that black people were wise and worth listening to. This would be one exception I can see to my point above about Roseland not seeking to do social commentary in the fortuneteller paintings.

Reading the Cards, 1899. Roseland shows how cartomancy can bridge
a considerable social divide.
In one of the cartomantic paintings, Reading the Cards, from 1899, Roseland shows a pretty-in-pink white girl, lap flush to that of her fortuneteller, to form a table for her card reading. This is one of the few fortuneteller paintings to show physical contact between the client and the reader. Here the white woman also rests her left arm behind the shoulder of the fortuneteller, which increases the sense of intimacy between them. The cards form a link between the two women, and they stare intently into the possible future. I note not only is the girl's parasol pointed down but also away from the fortuneteller. Further, it appears the fortuneteller herself has a parasol, resting behind the sofa.

There are a number of interesting questions raised by the Harry Roseland fortuneteller paintings. Not the least of these is whether his depiction of of a black fortuneteller, especially one skilled in a number of mantic arts, is realistic, or mainly his imagination. Was his model for all those years a real fortuneteller? And who might she have been? Were black women often engaged as card readers at this time? Or was that an unusual mantic practice for them?

So few artists ever seem to keep designer notes. Too bad. It would be good to know more about the origin of these paintings, and why Roseland ever began them in the first place.