Last week I looked in detail at an image which was alleged to be racist. I had intended ending that with a brief look at some paintings which were anti-racist, but ran out of space. This article looks at a few significant paintings which have changed attitudes to race in the West.
Western art, at least until the nineteenth century, is overwhelmingly white and dominated by white Europeans. However, many of its artists have been considerably more liberal than the ruling classes.
The British painter George Morland is a good example. One of the early supporters of the long campaign to abolish the slave trade, he made a series of paintings which featured African slaves, including this showing A Party Angling in 1789. It was to be another eighteen years before the first (and largely ineffective) Slave Trade Act was passed by the UK parliament, three years after the artist’s death.
That act only abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, leaving slavery itself to continue until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Even then, this didn’t bring an end to the abhorrent abuse of people as slaves.
One landmark painting which has been credited as responsible for the continuing campaign against slavery is JMW Turner’s Slave Ship from 1840.
Inevitably there are several different accounts of the background to this painting. What is clear is that it was not uncommon practice for slaves being shipped from Africa to the Americas to be thrown overboard, for various reasons. One captain, of the ship Zong, wrote an account of doing this in 1781, when a tropical storm was blowing up. Recognising the potential loss of value in his human cargo, he threw the sick and the dying overboard, because he could claim only for slaves ‘lost at sea’, as they were during the storm.
Turner shows a threatening sky and a violent sea, with the ship in the middle distance, silhouetted against the blood-red sky. The foreground is filled with the horrific evidence of the slaves who were cast overboard.
Seen in amongst a feeding frenzy of fish and scavenging seabirds are hands raised from the waves in their final plea for rescue, a gruesome manacled leg, and various shackles used to restrain the slaves when in transit. Further back on the left a vague white form could represent spirits, and on the right is the thrashing tail of a sea monster. Turner’s approach to sea creatures was romantic rather than scientific.
It is also claimed that Turner interviewed this captain, and/or that the captain was the husband of Mrs Sophia Caroline Booth, who when widowed became Turner’s partner. It is known that this incident was recorded in a poem, and that Turner exhibited his painting with his own verse apparently dating from 1812:
“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”
The painting was purchased by the critic John Ruskin, a fervent admirer of Turner’s work, who wrote of it:
“If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.”
Like the UK, France had a long series of laws which were intended to abolish slavery, but which took an unconscionable time before they were fully effective. These were shown on canvas by the artist-explorer François-Auguste Biard.
France’s Republic first tried to abolish slavery in 1794, but that was revoked by Napoleon eight years later. The new Republic tried again in 1815, but that didn’t come into effect until 1826. Even then, illegal trade continued, as shown in Biard’s early painting of The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa), from about 1833.
The French colonies, particularly in the West Indies, were allowed to continue to keep slaves until abolition was finally enforced on all French soil. Biard’s Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 27 April 1848 (1849) celebrates the occasion, in a royal commission for the palace at Versailles.
Abolition in the US was even more gradual, and it wasn’t until the thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution as late as 1865 that slavery was fully abolished. There are two American painters to whom I’d like to draw special attention in this context.
In Thomas Eakins’ watercolour The Dancing Lesson (Negro Boy Dancing) (1878), three African-Americans are seen together in a dancing school. Shown in the miniature portrait at the top left are Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad, emphasising collaboration between the generations. This was his first painting to be awarded a medal, at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston that year.
Eakins was a great teacher, and in 1879, started to train Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), the first African-American painter to achieve international recognition.
Tanner was born into a well-educated and relatively affluent family, his father being a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church who was elected bishop in 1888, although his mother had been born into slavery. He was first inspired to become an artist in 1872, and had begun painting as an amateur by 1876. He was first apprenticed in the flour trade, and it was only after an illness, in 1878, that his parents agreed to him pursuing a career as a painter.
In 1879, he started studies under Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. Although it’s often claimed that he was the only black student there at the time, there was at least one other. Within a couple of months, in early 1880, Tanner was exhibiting in Philadelphia, and had sold his first painting.
The Thankful Poor (1894) is one of Tanner’s most famous paintings. It’s sometimes claimed to be the first such depiction of an African-American family, despite Eakins’ painting of sixteen years earlier. What is most distinctive about Tanner’s is that it was a conscious effort to counter the caricatures which were then so popular, and that it was respectful and naturalistic without being patronising.
Non-white and First Nation art has come a long way since Tanner’s debut. There’s still a great deal more to do, though, to ensure that painting is as inclusive, global and multi-cultural as it must be.