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B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of

Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

The painting is undeniably a valuable tool for establishing a chronicle of a nation’s

history. Yet, only with a reservation that it is not de-contextualized or sharply separated from

the circumstances it was created, is it the proper and significant particle in the construction of

the national heritage. American painting in the nineteenth century evolved from strictly

historical themes towards depicting the proceedings and habits of the ordinary people which

was the occupation willingly pursued by genre painters. As the, themes and techniques

changed, the political and social attitudes towards the Southern Negro remains stable.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation brought about the abolition of slavery in the region,

Black Americans were hindered on their way to genuine citizenship by purposeful

disenfranchisement and social degradation maintained through the myth of their inferiority

largely spread throughout the country.

In this essay, the genre painting will be analyzed, since the artists who decided to

depict Negro Americans on their canvasses both were the practitioners engaged into the trend.

The period in question spread between 1807 and 1906 embracing the live spans of William

Sidney Mount and Eastman Johnson whose works will be the focus here. Their works were

produced to satisfy the orders of the rich American and European customers, thus shaping the

image of the USA abroad. Overall positive impression beaming from their pictures was the

necessary measure taken to show American plantations as the warm hospitable home for all.

The hospitality fell within certain limits for the Southern Negroes who were demanded to

know their place as servants or field workers and accept it, which they learned as their

survival lesson.1 Such a portrayal considerably influenced the latter perception of the Negroes

as “separate but equal”. Both Mount and Eastman, however, have rather equipped the

enslaved Negro in dignity, in the sense that they considered valuable merely to involve the

1
Alex Bontemps, "Representing Slavery: A Roundtable Discussion: Seeing Slavery," Common-Place,
no. 4 (2001), http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/slavery/bontemps.shtml (accessed November 30
2009).

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B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of
Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

Blacks as one of the themes of their works. What had happened latter in the century, with the

advent of blackface minstrelsy, only reinforced the fact that Mount and Johnson focused on

what was commonly desirable, not on the accuracy or fidelity of the Negro image.

William Sydney Mount born in 1807 in Setauket, New York, was confronted with his

father’s early death and taken to live with his grandparents. His sojourn at Stony Brook

instilled the admiration for nature in the young boy, which later will fruit in him being in the

circle of The Hudson River School painters. His artistic inclinations were discovered and

fostered by his brother Henry who agreed to apprentice William in his sign shop. Mount

exposed some talent in also in the domain of music. During his childhood years, with the

inspiration of his uncle Micah Hawkins, he acquainted himself with the piano and violin

melodies composed by Mr. Hawkins for the local audiences. The painter himself was often

invited to play the popular jigs, waltzes, and reels of the time at parties and dances.2 The

sound of music will later accompany his portrayals of Negro instrument players contributing

to the creation of the stereotypically perceived blacks as having the natural even irrational

musical talent. In his diaries he reminisces the Mounts family slave Anthony Hannibal Clapp

whom he used to listen to playing fiddle, so the presence of the black people with their

customs and habits was nothing strange to William. As he describes, although Anthony was

of a “disgraced race”, he still “was always happy and made anybody else so” 3. Yet another

instance of Mounts’s familiarity with Black slaves or indentured servant was at his

grandfather’s estate where he had met Cane who, as the painter observed, though was called a

slave distinguished from others with a very independent and free mind. 4 Thus, William Mount

was early accustomed to black men and black music, and to the commonly held belief that
2
Traditional Fine Arts Organization, “The Riches of Sight – William Sidney Mount and his World”
Fine Lines of William Sydney Mount, http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/3aa/3aa338.htm.

3
Karen M. Adams, “The Black Image in the Paintings of William Sydney Mount,” American Art
Journal 7 (1975): 44.

4
Ibid.

2
B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of
Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

black people were fine and happy human beings in their place, divinely designated as below

that of white men. The Negro motifs must have appealed to him, making his genre paintings

extremely popular among the contemporaries.

The motif of black musician was particularly employed by William Sydney Mount

from his earliest artistic trials as it can be seen in Rustic Dance after a Sleigh Ride (Figure 1)

inspired by the 1820 work of John Lewis Krimmel Dance in the Country Tavern. Young artist

used the structure of the picture and positioning of the people the same way the German-

American painter did a decade before. Despite being in the background the Negro fiddler, also

a borrowing from Krimmel, may be interpreted as controlling the situation depicted in the

painting by his act of playing. The fiddler is presented as a strict professional not as the one to

attend the dancing for pleasure, as are the other two Negro figures – one with a whip, peeping

through the door and the other with bellows – positioned at the fire place. All the three were

purposefully depicted as faithful and content servants treating the assigned tasks with

indulgence. It seems Mount's decision to paint a scene of local color was fortunate, for when

Rustic Dance was exhibited at the American Institute of the City of New York in 1830 it won

first prize and achieved popular success.5

Mounts’s occupation with Negro theme allowed the European minds of the time to

feel the flavor of American-ness as he continued with his careful portrayal of the Negro life

his Banjo Player and Bones Player pictures, both created in 1856. By the time he was

established with the reputation of “comic scenes”6 painter which to the contemporary critics

was synonymous to everyday life chronicler. These studies were painted verily and

realistically focusing on the minutest detail. The joy and beauty of the paintings must have

enchanted the European patrons for whom they were produced. Nevertheless, through the
5
Ibid., 43.

6
Ibid., 49.

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B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of
Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

vivid colors the author communicates a message of the happy, playful and childlike Negro

who were able to express instinctive emotions rather than decide on sober actions. The banjo

and bones players visible in the pictures conformed to the Happy Plantation slave Myth with

the Negro gamboling like a comfortably feeling animal-like creature, but did not caricature

the Negroes as strongly, as the minstrel stereotypes. Mount, as a matter of fact, had patrons

among slaveholders who extracted the beauty and happiness but at the same time did not feel

offended by the overestimate Negro position in those works.

Mount accustomed to the Black people by his childhood experiences, nonetheless

became an active member of Democratic Party prior to the Civil War when he negated the

abolitionist movement.7 Considering this aspect in his biography it is needless to accuse him

of double-face thinking. He was an artist giving the audience what it wanted to see and what

was to be easily digested by the public. The reasoning helps to justify his reluctance towards

depicting blacks in their own environment, without the careful and, as it was commonly

believed, loving supervision of white masters. Demonization was substituted with

idealization, all that to show the individuality of Negroes, as possessing the kind of instinctive

sensibility for music as he himself was credited with. Since the idealization was only to cover

up the political and ideological negative stereotyping, Mount’s works should probably be

analyzed predominantly on the artistic value, not as the credible portrayal of the African

Americans of the nineteenth century USA.

Eastman Johnson was another genre painter devotedly portraying the reality

surrounding Black Americans. Born 1824 in Lovell, Maine, he studied painting by visiting the

greatest galleries starting in Düsseldorf he continued through Italy, Holland, and France.8 As

7
Alfred Frankenstein, “William Sydney Mount and the Act of Painting” American Art Journal 1
(1969): 40.

8
Henry Theodore Tuckerman, Book of the artists: American artist life. (G.P. Putnam & sons, 1867),
467.

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B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of
Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

well as Mount he regarded Blacks as civilized but unable to support themselves. The Civil

War is believed to have shaped his depiction of Afro Americans along the lines of national

stereotype which framed Southern Blacks as romantically inferior but as well as the paintings

of William Sydney Mount, such idealized images appeared to both pro- and anti- slavery

Americans.9 Both the rustic idealized aspect together with that more dramatic one connected

to the Civil War circumstances are presented in two works of Johnson: Old Kentucky Home

(or Life in the South) painted in 1859, and Ride for Liberty of 1862.

The Old Kentucky Home is arguably the best-known painted image of American

slaves, and it is widely acknowledged as the most significant work of Eastman Johnson, one

that effectively launched his career when it was first exhibited at the National Academy of

Design in 1859.10 The title of the painting is divergent with the true location which is his

father's block on F Street in New York. Slaves are depicted while doing their work, like the

woman who is preparing vegetables while being courted by a man. The dilapidated

surroundings have room for a female child caregiver who is leaning out of the window. The

viewer may also notice a dancing boy and a banjo player who are intensely engaged in the

leisurely activities, a woman with a plate of some dish, and an older one looking at the white

man who is entering into the area crossing “the rude wooden threshold”11.

The success of this picture is probably to be owed to its flexibility in the interpretation.

To abolitionists it beamed with the terrible life conditions of slaves and to those on the other

side of the political debate it confirmed the natural inclination of Blacks towards leading lazy

lives, thus unable to support themselves if freed from white supervision. Moreover, enemies

9
Albert Boime, Art. in the age of civil struggle, 1848-1871. (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 432.

10
John Davis, “Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C.,”
the Art Bulletin 80: 1 (1998): 69.

11
Ibid., 70.

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B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of
Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

of abolition probably would have added all the generations were represented in Johnson’s

scene, thus the claim that the slavery institution devastated the Southern Black families is

discredited. On the part of slaves however, the family preservation factor was the main reason

for escaping their white benefactors as; the masters were propagated to have been at the time

of Eastman Johnson’s life.12 Indeed, such a strong tendency was it for a Southern Negro to

escape due to family re-unification that it became one of Eastman Johnson’s painting subject

in The Ride for Freedom.

The Ride to Freedom is more tonal than the other Johnson’s paintings, nevertheless it

captures almost photographic immediacy of the escape. The African-American family,

knowing the situation is risky, faces the projected freedom looking both forwards and

backwards. The scene is far from idyllic but it may be perceived as a typical depiction of

African-American men as those who are fugitive slaves. Unable to be regarded as lawful

citizens, they are unwilling to conform to their fixed place in supposedly warm and cozy

home in the proximity of a white master. Once again the mythologized Negro is dominant in

the paintings which are referred to as realistic in the history of fine art13.

Nineteenth century painting as, it can be concluded, may not serve as a reliable source

for transmitting a collective remembrance of the Southern slave for it omits the aspect of “the

memory of slavery as an exceedingly cruel institution” as it is implied in Davis’s article14. Te

paintings of Mount and Eastman fail to reflect the true position of the Negro in American

society, as if covering up the burning question of legalized campaign violence 15 which was the

genuine face of slavery. Davis also mentions the point in historic scholarship when textbooks
12
Lois E. Horton, Slavery and the making of America. (Oxford University Press US, 2005), 129.

13
Boime, 440

14
Davis, 88.

15
Ibid.

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B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of
Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

failed to account for an institution of slavery, focusing on the romanticized aspect of

plantation life16. Such an approach may be attributed to the paintings mentioned above

justifying partially the great popularity of the works even nowadays.

Works Cited

16
Ibid.

7
B103 Painting as a Vehicle of Collective Memory – Representations of the American Negro in the works of
Eastman Johnson and William Sydney Mount.

Adams, Karen, M. "The Black Image in the paintings of William Sydney Mount." American

Art Journal 7 (1975).

Boime, Alberto. Art in the age of civil struggle, 1848-1871. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 2008.

Bontemps, Alex."Representing Slavery: A Roundtable Discussion: Seeing Slavery" Common-

Place no. 1 (July, 2001), http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-

04/slavery/bontemps.shtml (accessed November 30 2009).

Davis, John. “Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington,

D.C.” The Art Bulletin 80; 1 (1998).

Frankenstein, Alfred. “William Sydney Mount and the Act of Painting.” American Art

Journal 1 (1969).

Horton , Lois E. Slavery and the Making of America. Oxford: Oxford University Press US,

2005.

Traditional Fine Arts Organization. “The Riches of Sight – William Sidney Mount and his

World” Lines of William Sydney Mount. http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/3aa/3aa338.htm

(accessed December 1, 2009).

Tuckerman. Henry, Theodore Book of the Artists: American artist life. Michigan: G. P.

Putnam & sons, 1867.