Great America (painting)

Great America is a 1994 acrylic-and-collage-on-canvas painting by American contemporary artist and professor Kerry James Marshall.[2]

Great America
ArtistKerry James Marshall
MediumAcrylic on canvas
MovementContemporary art
Dimensions261.62 cm × 289.56 cm (103.00 in × 114.00 in)
LocationThe National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., United States[1]


From Slow Painting:

"Three young women and a man are crammed in a canoe-like boat that looks like the ones we know from amusement parks. In combination with the texts 'wow' in the word balloon and 'Great America' on a ribbon, this brightly colored painting immediately evokes associations with a commercial billboard—an advertisement to attract visitors...In the upper right corner we can see a fifth figure that seems to be drowning. And what about the dark tunnel the boat appears to be entering? The suggestion of a dramatic, insecure future quite conflicts with an understanding of the image as being related to promoting spooky entertainment."[3]


The National Gallery of Art, where Great America was exhibited in 2013, has described its meaning as:

"This painting reimagines a boat ride into a haunted tunnel at an amusement park as the Middle Passage—the forced journey of slaves from Africa to the Americas. What might in other hands be a work of heavy irony becomes instead a delicate interweaving of the histories of painting and race. The canvas, which is stretched directly onto the wall, creates a screen or backdrop onto which viewers project their own associations triggered by the powerful imagery."[4]

Writing about the painting in The Wall Street Journal, Kelly Crow expands upon the idea of the canvas as an amusement park scene, with a group of black people aboard the "Tunnel of Love" boat ride. Crow explains:

"At first glance, the work's brightly colored palette makes everything seem merry, but Mr. Marshall fills his tunnel with ghostly, hooded shapes that evoke the Ku Klux Klan. The passengers are also crammed into the boat in a way that's reminiscent of the Middle Passage, the centurieslong slave trade that involved shipping kidnapped Africans to the New World."[1]

The Washington Post said of the painting:

"On closer inspection, in fact, the figures are not smiling. They don’t seem to be having the least bit of fun. Nor is this body of water upon which they sail some fun-house lagoon; there are suggestions of turbulence and depth, and mountains in the distance. This is an ocean, it dawns on us, the Atlantic Ocean. And if the people in the boat are contemporary Americans at leisure, they are also their ancestors embarked on the middle passage, the tragic voyage that brought them here from Africa in shackles.[5]

Marhsall himself has said Great American is about, "both the transatlantic slave trade and what it means for present-day black people to be Americans."[5]


The National Gallery of Art acquired the painting in 2011.[6] Great America was the centerpiece of an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art entitled "In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall", which was on view from June to December 2013.[5][7]

At least one study Marshall produced ahead of painting the final canvas for Great America was lost when a fire destroyed the Kent, Washington, D.C. home of art collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz.[8]

Reception and influenceEdit

Will Gompertz, writing for BBC News, drew comparisons between Great America and Donald Glover's "This Is America" music video, saying of the video, "Its subject of race, representation, opportunity and acts of extreme violence against African Americans is shared with the work of several other leading contemporary black American artists...Kerry James Marshall's 1994 painting, Great America, for instance."[9]

Chicago magazine described the canvas as, "a tart, haunting rendering of the transatlantic slave trade as a ghastly carnival ride."[10] Complex named Great America one of the greatest American paintings.[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Kelly Crow (2 August 2013). "Vivid Visions of Epic Injustices". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  2. ^ Carico, Aaron (2020). Black Market The Slave's Value in National Culture After 1865. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9781469655598.
  3. ^ Westgeest, Helen (2020). Slow Painting Contemplation and Critique in the Digital Age. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781501353079.
  4. ^ "Great America, Marshall". The National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  5. ^ a b c Kevin Nance (21 June 2013). "Kerry James Marshall: In the Tower". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  6. ^ Katherine Skiba (19 November 2013). "Chicago artist picked for presidential panel". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  7. ^ J.D. (1 July 2016). "Kerry James Marshall has accomplished his mission". Economist. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  8. ^ Rachel L. Swarns (7 August 2009). "In Collection's Ashes, a Heritage's Seeds". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  9. ^ Will Gompertz (12 May 2018). "Will Gompertz reviews Childish Gambino's This is America video". BBC News. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  10. ^ Sam Worley (19 March 2016). "This Modern Master Spent His Life Bringing Black Faces to Classic Art". Chicago Magazine. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  11. ^ "The 50 Greatest American Paintings". Complex. 1 May 2012. Retrieved 28 January 2021.