THE SENTIMENTAL NOTION OF HOME MEANT VERY DIFFERENT THINGS to Americans in different sections of the country, both before and during the Civil War. But to nearly all, home stood for family love and nurture, and represented the crucible of religious faith and secular patriotism—what the historian Drew Gilpin Faust later called “the altar of sacrifice.”
Ultimately, for many Southerners, home also came to symbolize a romanticized ideal worth fighting the central government to preserve intact, notwithstanding all its flaws—especially when it came to race. Little noticed in this conflicting set of understandings was what “home” indeed was for enslaved people at the time. Invariably, it was primitive, ramshackle, crowded, and unsanitary; cold in winter and broiling in summer; and lacking all but the most rudimentary furnishings and implements. In some cases, slave owners kept their “people” in worse settings than they kept their animals.
The artist Eastman Johnson (1824–1906) offered one of the best-known views ever painted of so-called slave life, an interpretation that usually strikes modern eyes as retrograde and clichéd to the point of embarrassment (even though, significantly, it was soon followed by a metamorphosis in the artist’s own attitude toward slavery and freedom). Here, in a phrase, is the visual embodiment of the dangerous myth of the “happy slave”—an argument that fueled pro-slavery intransigence for generations: the fiction that their cheerful nature demonstrated that slaves were better off as chattel. Under closer observation, however, Johnson’s canvas offered a far more subtle and complex commentary on slave life of the day.
First of all, in a literal sense, the painting’s title, while technically accurate, was somewhat misleading just the same. A viewer of that time—and today—would understandably infer that the scene purports to show slave life as it existed in the Deep South. Actually, Johnson ventured no farther than his father’s neighborhood in Washington, D.C., to paint this genre scene. The family had relocated there from Maine in 1853, when the elder Johnson secured a government job with the U.S. Navy. Eastman, the talented youngest of eight children, meanwhile pursued art studies in Boston, Düsseldorf, Paris, and The Hague before opening a studio in New York City in 1859. That year, apparently on a visit to his father, Eastman simply asked family servants to assemble in front of their quarters in the backyard and pose there as models. Other sources give a local slave dwelling or the rear of a run-down nearby tavern as the setting. Either way, it is probably safe to assume that the crumbling roof, broken windows, and cluttered lawn were all products of the artist’s imagination.
The central figure in the composition, a benign elderly man, merrily plays his banjo as a mother urges her small child to join in and dance—a motif popular with many artists of the day, including Thomas Eakins. Oblivious to the squalor, a young couple cuddles romantically in the foreground while an old woman observes the scene by leaning out of an upstairs window. Meanwhile, a beautifully attired white woman enters the scene from the main house—we are surely meant to believe—to observe the amusements. As one critic of the day insensitively maintained, her arrival cast “a refinement over the scene, and as she is not startled, we need not be, at witnessing the innocent enjoyment of negro Southern life.”
Other viewers, of course, could be left with the impression that even in the grip of slavery black people remained incurably jolly—and that perhaps slave life was not so bad after all. Here, in the words of the publication the Albion, was a “truthful…glance at thedolce far niente of our colored brethren.” It is important to note, however, that not all viewers of the day concurred with this rosy perspective. In fact, from the outset, whether the picture was meant to “support or condemn slavery,” in the scholar John Davis’s words, was a matter of lively debate.
Writing in 1867, the pioneering art critic Henry T. Tuckerman was quick to observe that the artist had acquired a “peculiar fame” for “his delineation of the negro,” adding: “One may find in his best pictures of this class a better insight into the normal character of that unfortunate race than ethnological discussion often yields. The affection, the humor, the patience and serenity which redeem from brutality and ferocity the civilized though subjugated African, are made to appear in the creations of this artist with singular authenticity.” From the beginning some critics regarded the painter—and this painting—as antislavery. One such contemporary labeled the work “a sort of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of pictures,” and another acknowledged that it was “as telling as a chapter from ‘Slavery as It Is,’ or a stirring speech from the Antislavery platform.”
One thing remains certain: the canvas was enormously popular in its time—even among white liberals, and this in an era of sectional conflict inflamed to the boiling point by the inhumane 1857 Dred Scott decision and the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. When the picture was exhibited at New York’s National Academy of Design in the year of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry (1859), it drew rave reviews and immediately earned Johnson membership in the prestigious association.
It also quickly acquired a nickname, “Old Kentucky Home”—after the wildly popular seven-year-old minstrel song by Stephen Foster that emphasized happy old “darkies” living lives of bliss (“The young folks roll on the little cabin floor, / All merry, all happy, and bright!”), though the song also conceded that they actually endured miserable lives of toil (“The head must bow and the back will have to bend, / Wherever the darky may go. / A few more days and the trouble all will end, / In the field where the sugar-canes grow”). This song, too, has been misunderstood, for Frederick Douglass later credited the Foster tune with evoking sympathy for enslaved people. Johnson’s complex painting, open to the same variety of interpretations, may have prompted a similar response.
Many critics of the day immediately saw the picture as more than the sum of its parts. As one period writer shrewdly observed: “How fitly do the dilapidated and decaying negro quarters typify the approaching destruction of the ‘system’ that they serve to illustrate…. Yet this dilapidation, unheeded and unchecked, tells us that the end is near.”
Negro Life at the South was auctioned off in 1867. The following year, the painting already known as “the artist’s masterpiece” fetched the staggering sum of six thousand dollars—a small fortune in its time—when it was acquired next by the sugar-refining magnate and major collector Robert L. Stuart. By then, Eastman Johnson had significantly expanded his own artistic horizons, sufficiently so to move beyond representations like Negro Life that might be misconstrued as supportive of slavery. His epiphany came in March 1862, when he personally witnessed a fugitive slave family fleeing on horseback into Union lines near Centreville, Virginia. The scene apparently called to his mind the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. The artist who, according to some interpretations, had helped perpetuate the retrograde image of enslaved blacks as happy in their bondage now produced an exhilarating image called A Ride for Liberty—the Fugitive Slaves, showing a father, mother, and child dashing off toward freedom, emancipating themselves.
In the space of just three years, Eastman Johnson himself was also liberated.