Art is and has always been significant to the life and culture of the black person in America. From hiding Yoruba religious symbols in Christian iconography to singing the woes of the soul in the so-called “negro-spiritual,” art has been a way for the black mind and body to cope with a seemingly never-ending struggle.
Until recent history, there was little known about the art of the black slave unless it was passed down culturally. Slave owners kept records of art made on their plantations, but they, “for all practical purposes, observed nothing extraordinary or anything remotely indicative of cultural production” (Patton 13). Instead, “what we have learned so far about black slaves and free blacks should be credited largely to those political activists of the 1970s who demanded that we look at records, written and archeological, to revise our assumptions that there were no black artisans or artists” (Patton 13).
Dr. David Driskell was one of those who actively researched and provided a history of the art of the black person in America, and it’s now agreed that despite the struggles, the oppression, and racism toward black people in America, “slavery and racism did not prevent African-Americans from making art” (Patton 14).
In 2016, I was announced as the David Driskell fellow at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. I was able to meet, listen, and talk to Dr. Driskell. He was a deeply spiritual man who — despite his circumstances — made art, an art that he hoped shared the spirit of the human struggle and smile, and his stories were told with a calm passion that stirred the spirit. After our conversations, I was always left grateful and hopeful about not only the black story in America but about the human story in general.
In this article, I will highlight three black artists of the 19th century who, despite their circumstances, made hopeful art and gained international renown.
Robert Duncanson was born in 1821 and was a descendant of freed slaves from Virginia. As a young man, he was interested in art and was soon “studying and copying engravings of famous European paintings… Within approximately fifteen years he was proclaimed the ‘best landscape painter in the West’, earning his reputation during frequent trips abroad to exhibit in Canada, Scotland, England, and Italy, becoming the first black to receive international recognition” (79).
Duncanson was able to travel and exhibit his landscape paintings internationally because of “the benevolence of American and English abolitionists… and abolitionist organizations” (Patton 80). During the mid-19th century, many abolitionists raised funding to support black artists. Without the support of the abolitionists, many black artists would not have experienced their success.
It is necessary to remember that Duncanson is painting before, during, and after the Civil War which occurred between 1861 and 1865, and black people, even free ones, were often considered inadequate and unequal to their white counterparts.
Duncanson paints this unfortunate racial struggle into his landscape compositions. For obvious reasons, plein air painting was highly discouraged during the Civil War, so Duncanson switched his focus to literary painting. He became “a member of the Cincinnati Sketch Club and in the late 1850s and again in 1861 participated in their discussions about literary subjects…” (Patton 82).
In 1862, in the midst of civil war, Duncanson made a painting called ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ (1862), based on a poem by English poet Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson’s poem tells of burdened mariners who want to leave the worries of the world behind. These mariners experience an altered state of consciousness after ingesting lotus.
Duncanson wants to make a world to which the African American could escape despite the surrounding turmoil: “The Land of the Lotus Eaters is an escapist landscape. A crisis of spirit is deceptively rendered in a sentimental vision… The iconography of this painting transforms the meaning of Tennyson’s poem. Its poignancy is heightened when it is interpreted within the context of the American political history and the social history of the artist’s own race and culture” (Patton 82-84).
Duncanson later showed his painting Land of the Lotus Eaters to Tennyson in Tennyson’s home. “Your landscape,” Tennyson said to Duncanson, “is a land in which one loves to wander and linger” (Moore). I believe Duncanson’s painting to sum up the hopes and dreams of the black person in 19th century America, a hope that is not foreign to many of us now: to escape to a world of peaceful freedom despite the looming danger around us. Creating and displaying art, for Duncanson, was a way of being hopeful for something better.
Edmonia M. Lewis
Edmonia M. Lewis was also born close to the start of the Civil War and was also an internationally renowned artist. As a matter of fact, she “was the first African-American sculptor to achieve national and international critical recognition” (Patton 91). She, like Duncanson, received finances from abolitionist organizations which allowed her to travel to Europe and study art.
Lewis was a neoclassical sculptor during a time in which neoclassical art was very popular in America. The neoclassical sculptor looked to represent “ennobling ideas and concepts like truth, justice, and reason” (Patton 90). Lewis used neoclassical sculpture to “portray heroic themes such as freedom and to convey an iconology about race and gender” (Patton 93).
In 1867, two years after the end of the civil war, Lewis sculpted “Forever Free, titled after the poignant phrase from the emancipation proclamation of 1863” (Patton 93). Lewis was the first black sculptor to tackle “the compositional difficulties in sculpting two figures…” (Patton 93).
She sculpts an idealized black man and woman, calm and poised. The black man stands with his foot on the heavyweight that would’ve once kept him enslaved, looks toward the heavens, and raises his broken chains to the sky as if they’re an offering. He caringly places his hand on the woman who kneels next to him, and she looks to the heavens with her hands clasped in prayer.
Today, the imagery of a kneeling woman next to a man — despite the fact that this was sculpted by a black woman in 1867 at the beginning of Reconstruction — could be dismissed as misogynistic. But context is important. Lewis’s kneeling woman is reminiscent of the women’s abolitionist’s emblem, which was often emblazoned with the phrase: “Am I Not A Woman & A Sister.”
American slavery equally brutalized black bodies, emasculating the black man, and sexualizing the black woman. Often, the black family unit was intentionally destroyed to keep slaves disjointed and submissive. During Reconstruction, however, “black men’s ability to support and protect their women became synonymous with manhood, and that in turn denoted freedom” (Patton 95).
I see Lewis’s neoclassical representation of an idealized black woman and a black man as not only a celebration of abolition but also as the expressed desires of a black woman in 1867: for the strength of the black man and a strong family unit. Though subjective interpretations of artwork are always nuanced, I don’t think these desires would’ve gone unnoticed by the newly emancipated black person during Reconstruction:
“Normally the narrative represented by ideal sculpture appealed to an educated elite, who knew the literary sources and cultural references. Lewis’s work, however, had wider appeal, to an uneducated audience, especially an African-American one, who would ‘read’ the story in the context of their own experiences, as well as to the educated who would understand the story in the context of abolitionist and classical literature. Whites and blacks, educated and uneducated, could appreciate this work” (Patton 95).
Yet, Lewis was not trying to make overtly racial art. She made art that was personal to her during the time in which she lived, and so her art — if it were to be authentic — would have to express those issues that affected her on a daily basis, but her ultimate goal was to be appreciated as an artist irrespective of her race: “Lewis’s art was not overtly racial. She, like her fellow artists, was motivated by a desire to be among the best American artists, to prove mastery and to achieve universal appeal” (Patton 103).
Henry Ossawa Tanner
After the Civil War, black artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner began to create art to repair the image of black culture. Centuries of abuse had resulted in the formation of negative stereotypes toward the black person in America and art possessed the possibility to transform those stereotypes into something positive: “According to a family friend, W.S. Scarborough, African-Americans hoped that the treatment of race subjects by Tanner ‘would serve to counterbalance so much that has made the race only a laughing stock subject for those artists who see nothing in it but the most extravagantly absurd and grotesque” (Patton 98).
In his early career, Tanner was on a mission to present a virtuous image of the African-American. In contrast to minstrelsy — which often co-opted and demeaned the black persona for amusement and entertainment — Tanner began to depict African-Americans as respectful, dignified, family-oriented human beings.
In 1893, Tanner “was invited to speak at the Congress of Africa, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Taking the subject of ‘The Negro in American Art’, Tanner claimed that ‘actual achievement [in the arts] proves Negroes possess ability and talent for successful competition with white artists’” (Patton 99).
One of Tanner’s most well-known paintings is Banjo Lesson painted in 1893. Here, Tanner depicts a previously popular theme in American art: the black banjo player. Previously, the black banjo player was depicted as a caricature of black culture. Instead, Tanner depicts the black banjo player as an ordinary human being, one that has a home, a family, and a respect for his art.
In the painting, a grandfather is shown teaching his grandson how to play the banjo. The grandson sits in his grandfather’s lap and attempts to play a chord. The grandfather looks intently but caringly as his grandson begins to strum. Tanner wanted to place a spotlight on this representation of black life in America — a representation universal in its depiction of the care of family — and his composition suggests this literally: it’s almost as if a spotlight is illuminating the two figures and the wall in the background (Patton 99-100).
Like Duncanson and Lewis, Tanner became an internationally renowned artist and “spent most of his professional life in France, painting portraits, genre, landscapes, and religious subjects. He received enthusiastic recognition in his own country and was the first African-American artist elected to full membership at the National Academy of Design in 1927” (Patton 98).
In the 19th century, during a time in which American race-relations were arguably the most intense, black artists were using art to build a culture that expressed their desires and hopes. They used art to not only help them deal with the struggles of being black in America but also as a way to hope for fulfilling the fulness of their potential despite the cruelty of their circumstances. In the memory of Dr. David Driskell, and as a black artist in a racially tense time in American history, I also look to use the art I create as a source of hope.
Moore, Lucinda. “America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter: Robert S. Duncanson.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 8th, 2011. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/americas-forgotten-landscape-painter-robert-s-duncanson-112952174/Patton, Sharon. “Nineteenth-Century America, the Civil War and Reconstruction.” African-American Art, Oxford History of Art. Oxford University Press, 1998.