The Civil War and American Art
By Sarah Kate Jorgensen
PART 2: EASTMAN JOHNSON’S “NEGRO LIFE AT THE SOUTH”
Genre paintings reveal personal and political narratives in the exhibit The Civil War and American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They cover topics from abolition to emancipation and reconstruction. Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South (1859) was first shown in New York City at the National Academy of Design. At the time, New York, like Baltimore, was a divided city –with many pro-South cotton and sugar merchants in residence. The painting won contemporary praise for its engaging portrayal of lives of enslaved black people on the eve of the war in Washington DC. This painting has a message that has been overlooked by audiences.
Critics at the time parsed the painting up into stereotypes of “negro life” drawn from literature, most notably Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A young mulatto couple courts in the corner. A man plays banjo while a boy listens attentively. A dark skinned woman holds a lighter skinned baby. Another dark skinned woman dances with a young boy. Two girls beckon to a white woman who is entering the yard, followed by a black woman in a turban. According to curator Eleanor Harvey, reviewers in the past have commented on its depiction of the power of music to bring people together. One interpretation of the painting was that music drew the curious mistress from the master’s house.
While many critics noted with approval the depiction of poor living conditions of the slave quarters, others, Democratic leaning newspapers, enjoyed it for its representation of slaves who appear to be happy. The appearance of the axe and scythe in the quarters, unthinkable in the Deep South, only underscored the feeling that these people were no threat to or would not incite an insurgence against their masters. Critics described this scene as an “idyll”, and neglected to see the deeper significance of Johnson’s myriad details. Eastman Johnson wanted to address and challenge the fascination that the North had with race relations in the South.
There are eleven enslaved blacks portrayed in this scene– a significant anomaly considering the average number of enslaved peoples per urban household in Washington DC numbered three (the amount Eastman Johnson’s stepmother brought into the Johnson house). That they are not dressed as field hands suggests that there was a range of black servitude in urban settings. The number of people attests to the strong community and familial structures in the enslaved world. This is how news of war and emancipation was transmitted. While the New York City audience would not have known this, Eastman Johnson was well aware of how society in Washington operated.
Harvey mentions how critics of the day noted the stern but dignified dark woman teaching the child African folkways in an effort to keep the traditions alive in the New World. They also noticed the woman holding out the light skinned child, the cat creeping into an upstairs window and the rooster calling to the hen at the close of day. In fact, the Democrat cotton merchant from New York who initially bought the painting saw it as a painting depicting the happiness of slave life (by 1859 the painting’s name had been changed to Old Kentucky Home– despite its Washington DC locale). Rarely, however, did critics notice how the narrative of the upper half of the painting interacted with the lower half.
That Johnson sets the slave quarters right next to the master’s house allows for reading the narrative as a series of connections between the two dwellings. Although it is a fine rendering of urban enslaved society, Johnson intended much more. The fence that divides the two houses is breached by the open gate through which the women arrive and by the wooden ladder from the slave quarters to the master’s house near the upstairs bedroom. A light blue fabric hangs from the adjacent window– another way into the house without using the front door. The cock crows from the tree, calling to the hen below. Johnson depicts a cat slinking into the slave quarters. The dark skinned woman leans out an adjacent window carrying the much lighter skinned baby. While Johnson is making a subtle narrative about blood relations between slave and master, the focus of his painting is the appearance of the white girl. She is furtively stepping through the doorway to the slave yard in a way that contemporary critics interpreted as an interest in hearing the music. However her gaze goes not to the musician or to the children who beckon her but to the girl who is about her age across the courtyard. A woman who checks to make sure that they are not witnessed follows her.
Harvey has many ideas to explain this scenario, including the possibility that the white girl could be the daughter of a slave and that she passes for white; her sister could be the mulatto girl being courted; she could be seeing her family. The topic of miscegenation was the topic of curiosity and horror to both Northerners and Southerners. To many, one of the great moral failings of slave society was the masters enslaved their own offspring, and it took place, as Harvey states “with far greater frequency than anyone was comfortable believing.” What appears to be a harmonious “idyll” becomes a scene of interconnected spaces and a jarring narrative that renders Johnson’s verdict on slavery and American society as unstable as the decaying mossy roof of the slave quarters.
The painting calls into question the morality of slavery and the moral decay that is destabilizing society. Everything here is meant; nothing is left to chance. As in many of the pictures in the exhibition, the picture is more than the sum of its parts. Do we accept their benign surfaces or ask questions? Can we, as viewers, dig deeper? This exhibition invites us to do just that.