George Biddle, Catfish Row
In 1930, Biddle traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, to make two illustrations for the opening pages of the libretto of Porgy and Bess, an opera then being developed by George and Ira Gershwin based on the 1925 novel Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward. The opera was conceived for and originally performed by classically trained African American singers. The main characters are Porgy, a disabled man, who pursues Bess, a woman who is otherwise involved with both a thug and a drug dealer.
Biddle made this lithograph, Catfish Row, which is the setting for Heyward’s book and Gershwin’s opera. It was not one of the illustrations included in the libretto. It was inspired by a place known as “Cabbage Row” in Charleston, where, historically, Black residents sold cabbages and other crops. Gershwin also prepared a musical suite, “Catfish Row,” originally titled “Suite from Porgy and Bess,” which premiered at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia on January 21, 1936. We may wonder if Biddle’s Catfish Row lithograph was somehow connected to the musical suite by his friends, the Gershwins.