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Cynthia Haven: Antebellum artists protested slavery

What does one do when confronting the biggest social evil of one's time?

In the case of a few artists in the decades prior to the Civil War, they lifted their pens and paintbrushes. They sketched black slaves being bonded, branded, whipped and auctioned.

Rhonda Goodman, a Stanford doctoral student in art and art history and a Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow at the Humanities Center, has studied the little-known artwork for messages that reveal the social and political attitudes of the time. She focused her research on the way artists portrayed slave auctions, in particular.

The "sentimental culture" in the decades prior to the Civil War was a time when artists and writers "used their works to elicit a certain type of feeling and engender sympathy," said Goodman, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. Significantly, the most popular book of the 19th century, after the Bible, was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Here's a case in point: On the morning of March 3, 1853, the little-known English painter Eyre Crowe, who traveled America with author William Makepeace Thackeray, saw an advertisement in Richmond, Va., for a slave auction: "Fifteen likely negroes to be disposed of between half-past nine and twelve—five men, six women, two boys, and two girls."

Although engrossed in his sketching, he attracted attention. No one would bid. The auctioneer finally confronted the artist and asked him how he would like it if someone interrupted his business. As Crowe recalled in his memoir, With Thackeray in America: "This was unanswerable; I got up with the intention of leaving quietly, but, feeling this would savour of flight, I turned round to the now evidently angry crowd of dealers, and said ëYou may turn me away, but I can recollect all I have seen.'"

Crowe left the "stifling atmosphere of human traffic," but he remembered what he saw somewhat differently than what he portrayed in the sketch he made on the spot, which was eventually published in the Illustrated London News in 1856. Crowe "Europeanized" the slaves' physiognomy to reduce the sense of otherness for white viewers, as these artists typically did, Goodman said.

In the finished painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861, the group of people are no longer docile and waiting. The women are tense and anxious. In the sketch, it's not clear if the man to the right is part of a family group. But in the painting, the association is unmistakable. He is anguished and unresigned—"angry, because he cannot defend his family," Goodman said.

The painting "reminds us that this is a perverse situation; they may be sold apart," Goodman added.

Crowe's strategy worked: His painting got the right kind of attention. Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, was discussed in The Times, the Athenaeum, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and Art Journal; the last called it "one of the most important pictures in the exhibition" and wrote, "The appalling guilt of that accursed system was never more successfully depicted"—important and timely, since Britain was arming the South and barely able to keep an official neutrality because of its dependence on cotton.

Was Crowe fulfilling the threat of his exit line, recollecting what he didn't dare sketch in front of the angry dealers? Or was he altering his sketch to make a political statement, a visual equivalent to Uncle Tom's Cabin?

We'll never know for sure. In any case, he wasn't alone. In Thomas Satterwhite Noble's Price of Blood (its title taken from Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which a character describes money earned from the sale of children by their master and father as "the price of their blood"), a plantation owner sells his barefoot mulatto son, who looks away from him; their faces differ only by age and the color of their skin.

Noble was a Southerner who fought for his states' rights, though he loathed slavery. He made a series of paintings depicting its horrors after the war, as the nation faced a new set of race issues. No one knows who painted the unsigned Slave Auction (circa 1850), now owned by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Did the artist wish to avoid controversy through anonymity? In the painting, a woman so pale "she may be an octoroon" is dressed like a bride and being led into a group of men who are appraising her, Goodman said. Perhaps she is being sold into concubinage. In the foreground, a man is raising a weapon, threatening violence, and a nearly naked baby lies beneath him in the foreground. The scene recalls the Massacre of the Innocents, but the mother doesn't seem to notice; she is clinging to an older child who is being examined by a dealer.

Who bought these paintings? "Nobody did," Goodman said. In some cases, they didn't even try: Goodman said the more gruesome art of the period prior to 1820—of slaves being branded or whipped, for example—was not made for sale or exhibition at all.

But these artists hoped for a market. After the execution of radical abolitionist John Brown on Dec. 2, 1859, sculptor John Rogers failed to find a buyer for his Slave Auction (1859), a group of figures in plaster. "I find the times have quite headed me off," he wrote in a Christmas Eve letter, "for The Slave Auction tells such a strong story that none of the stores will receive it to sell for fear of offending their Southern customers."

Instead, Goodman said, he commissioned a black man to find a buyer by trying to sell the painting door-to-door on the streets of New York. It sold.

"Part of what is so important about Rhonda's work is its interdisciplinary scope—the way she brings together cultural history, the history of race, visual arts and material culture," said Bryan Wolf, the Jeanette and William Hayden Jones Professor in American Art and Culture and Goodman's dissertation adviser. "She's showing how the issues surrounding slavery permeated virtually every aspect of antebellum life, and she's also showing, through the example of a painter like Crowe, how ways of thinking—like sentimentalism, which was so important to middle-class culture at the time—were mobilized in the service of the antislavery cause."
Read entire article at Stanford News Service