Slavers were never a major part of the population of the District of Columbia (census records, for example, indicate 3,185 resident slaves in 1860, or only 4.25 percent of the city’s residents). Yet on the national political scene, no single patch of ground was more consistently and more controversially thrust into public light during some four decades of abolitionist and proslavery campaigning. Even when they could make no headway in the rest of the South, Northern activists tried repeatedly throughout the antebellum years to erase the blot of slavery in the nation’s capital.On Slavery in Washington, “Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C. John Davis” in Art Bulletin vol. 80 no. 1 (March 1998).
Like most others I have been horrified watching yesterday’s failed coup in Washington, DC. The image above however struck me as particularly poignant and as the art historian I am I decided to dig a bit deeper. Please note that this post captures only my initial findings and I hope to follow it with a more thorough analysis.
After a quick search I discovered that the portrait hanging on the wall behind the domestic terrorist carrying the Confederate flag is of Justin Smith Morrill (1810-1898), one of the founders of the Republican Party best known for his role the Morrill Land-Grant Acts that established federal funding for establishing many of the United States’ public colleges and universities. Now in the Senate collection it was painted by Jonathan Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) in 1884 (below).
For those familiar with 19th century American art, Johnson is best known for his depictions of “so-called slave life,” like Negro Life in the South (1859) later nicknamed Old Kentucky Home (below). In The Civil War in 50 Objects Harold Holzer (2013) characterizes the work as “the visual embodiment of the dangerous myth of the ‘happy slave’ – an argument that fueled pro-slavery intransigence for generations.” How fitting that an image depicting the anti-black sentiments of 21st century white supremacy would include both a confederate flag, and a painting by Johnson.
According to SmartHistory essay by Scott Mestan and Dr. Bryan Zygmont, Johnson’s second most famous work in his focus on the status of race around the time of the American Civil war is A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862). For more on their analysis of this work see their article here.
Margatita Karasoulas, Assistant Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum and Steven Zucker further discuss the work in this “Seeing American” video.
I debated even posting the initial image of the reprehensible acts of January 6th, 2020, but I have been so struck by the appearance of Johnson’s Portrait of Justin Morrill in the photograph that I think it needs to be addressed. This is just another example of the poignancy of visual culture and the importance of visual literacy and critical thinking in 2021, especially in topics around race and representation.
In his detailed account of “Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C.,” John Davis concludes by stating: “American history, it is becoming increasingly clear, has suffered no small number of such losses of memory, particularly when the issue of race is a determining factor.” This was true when he wrote the article in 1998, and tragically it is even more apparent in this current moment.
While I think more about yesterday’s events and the significance of these images here are some additional resources to consider.