Wenonah Day Bell captured the importance of women to South Carolina’s thriving peach industry during the 1930s and 1940s in Peach Packing, Spartanburg County. Born in Trenton, a crossroads situated about one hundred miles southwest of the locale depicted, Bell spent much of her youth moving between small towns in the Piedmont region, including Spartanburg. Eventually, the family settled in Gainesville, Georgia, after her father, a Baptist clergyman, established his ministry there. Not long thereafter, Bell began her artistic education, which took her well beyond her Southern birthplace.
Between 1908 and 1929, Bell attended Brenau College in Gainesville, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Académie Colarossi in Paris, and the Hans Hofmann School on the Italian island of Capri, among other institutions. Such extensive and diverse training provided Bell with a solid foundation on which to cultivate a successful career as a painter, teacher, and author. Her talent was particularly appreciated at the venerable Pennsylvania Academy, where she received prestigious prizes.
The artist’s award-winning, hard-edged technique is apparent in Peach Packing. While composed in the Realist tradition encouraged at her Philadelphia alma mater, the picture also demonstrates Bell’s familiarity with modern art movements. The expressive use of bright hues, simplified forms, minimal and somewhat arbitrary chiaroscuro, and slightly distorted figures and perspective lend the painting a naïve quality that was celebrated among early twentieth century artists. No doubt Bell’s saturated Gauguin-esque coloring and skewed perspective owe something to the landmark exhibitions featuring European Post-Impressionist and Cubist art that occurred at the Pennsylvania Academy while she was enrolled. And in both subject matter and execution, the painting is a Southern interpretation of the American Scene painting being contemporaneously explored by Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.
Far from abstract, Bell’s painting offers documentary insight into a critical agricultural enterprise in the South. A column of women fill peach baskets with ripe fruit, while a somewhat androgynous workman carts the crates from shed to truck for transport north. The crates are noticeably marked with a circled “B”—perhaps a reference to the cooperative of farmers that managed the facility rather than a label denoting a particular brand of produce. Pulley wheels overhead and at the far left of the composition allude to the presence of a mechanism that aided the employees’ efficiency. Amidst this bustling activity, it is the row of colorfully clothed women aligned before a sorting bench that grabs the viewer’s attention.
Like many other women artists, Bell’s oeuvre was by no means limited to so-called feminine subject matter. In addition to painting New York urban scenes, the artist also created still-lifes and portraits in both oil and watercolor, which she regularly submitted to exhibitions in the Northeast and South. Yet her most prized compositions are warmly colored Southern landscapes and rural vignettes. Indeed, although she taught art at various schools in and around New York City throughout her career—including a lengthy tenure at the Parsons School of Design—Bell periodically returned to the South, the source of her artistic inspiration, to sketch and paint. She also authored an autobiographical memoir, The Restless Bells, which recounts her family’s history from the post-bellum years through World War II. Shortly after completing her book in 1973, Bell’s health deteriorated and, in need of her own rest, she returned to the South, spending her final years near relatives in Georgia.