The legacy of slavery in the United States is a starkly invisible one in terms of the history of American art. The majority of artwork from the past three centuries illustrates the strong racial biases with which the predominantly white, patriarchal society has addressed African Americans throughout U.S. history. While a look at past art history reveals the tradition of a white-imposed inferiority on African Americans, contemporary artwork finds strength in its power to challenge this preconceived narrative. The ability to address the legacy of slavery and the ongoing effects of racism is a crucial aspect of contemporary art. It serves as a retrospective rooted in the racial context of the present. This process of looking back and reanalyzing artistic tradition is echoed in the current reconstruction of a more inclusive narrative on the lives of the enslaved individuals of the Homewood House.
This article will present the history of four enslaved individuals who lived and worked at the Homewood House through an art historical lens. It will begin with a discussion of the Black Image in Western art, focusing on the tradition of representation as well as the role of the African American artist throughout the history of art. Subsequently, it will address the recent trend among plantation museums and historic sites to coordinate artwork with the representation of slavery as part of their historical narrative. Thereafter the link between the research of four enslaved individuals who lived at the Homewood House—Rebecca Ross, William Ross, Anna, and Charity Castle—and four cut paper silhouette panels by contemporary artist Kara Walker will be considered. It will conclude with an assessment of art as a necessary tool for confronting difficult history.
The Black Image in Art History
The legacy of the Black Image in art history reaches all the way back to the arts of the ancient empires. Concentrating on the representation of African Americans in the timeline of American art, it is evident that the history of art since the founding of the colonies is reflective of a persistent underlying racist attitude revealed through the frequently demeaning portrayal of blacks. The majority of American artwork depicting African Americans perpetuates Eurocentric stereotypes of the men as being “servile…comic…or threatening.”
This bias is exemplified in Justus Engelhardt Kühn’s 1710 work, Henry Darnall III as a Child, (figure 1) the earliest American artwork to include an African American figure. The white aristocratic child commands the center of the work, grandly dressed and positioned in front of the vast estate complex—a marker of his future inherited wealth. His obvious upper-class status is buttressed by the docile figure kneeling behind him. The slave is depicted in a silver collar, an overt reminder of his forced bondage. His subservience is conveyed through his lesser positioning in the artwork as well as his meek facial expression, upturned to his white, wealthy child-master. Specifically in regards to works of the antebellum era, commissioned art incorporating African American figures serves primarily to depict them as “objects whose function was not only to serve their owners, but to enhance their self-image.” This role of the enslaved image in early American art reinforces the treatment of African Americans not as equal human beings but as forms of wealth and property during the antebellum period.
A prominent departure from this tendency to marginalize the depiction of blacks can be seen in the artwork of John Singleton Copley. His famous 1778 work, Watson and the Shark, (figure 2) contains possibly the most equitable and dynamic portrayal of an African American of his time. The black figure is positioned on equal footing with the white man at the apex of a pyramidal composition that links the flailing white man Watson, the menacing shark, and the slave. With the slave looking down on the white man’s risk of death at the mouth of a shark, Copley is painting a reversal of the frequent tragedy that befell slaves forced on the Middle Passage—the dead and dying were often thrown overboard. The black man reaches out a hand in aid that lays on a linear plane that connects to Watson’s outstretched white hand. This compositional decision forms a crucial link between the white man and the black man, speaking to the equal humanity and individuality of the figures portrayed, regardless of race.
This interest in portraying the personhood rather than the stereotypes of the African American figure is echoed a century later in the artwork of Winslow Homer. The Watermelon Boys (figure 3) illustrates Homer’s wish to depict a realistic portrayal of the black identity in the aftermath of the Civil War. Finished in 1876 amidst the Reconstruction years in the South, the artwork paints an equality and relaxed contentment between the black and white children. The figures all rest on the same plane, participating in the same mundane action together with nothing divisive in their representation. This work is illustrative of the pervasive democratizing theme to Homer’s Reconstruction period oeuvre. Copley and Homer were, however, exceptions to the general trend of painting an inferior rendering of the Black Image that has crossed the millennia of the history of art. Although these two American artists paint a deviation from the white-male dominated artistic society of eighteenth and nineteenth-century America, it is important to note that the population of American artists at this time were susceptible to racial bias and as a whole lacked a dominant non-white perspective among their ranks.
In terms of African American art history, there is little historical record on black artists until we reach the Harlem Renaissance beginning in the 1920s. Before this movement, art historical study tends to isolate African American contributions to the timeline of American art to a handful of influential figures. These include Joshua Johnson (1763-1824), regarded as the first professional African American painter who spent the majority of his artistic career in the Baltimore area, and Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a Pennsylvania-born artist known for his work depicting the daily lives of African American families. Much like current research processes uncovering the histories of the enslaved who had lived and worked at historic sites across the United States, the expansion of art historical scholarship on African American artists is an ongoing process—a comprehensive analysis of Joshua Johnson’s life and art was recently undertaken by academics in the 1990s.
A look at contemporary art, however, reveals the diverse spectrum of identities that has recently disrupted the whitewash of American art history. A prominent example is artist Kara Walker (b. 1969) who addresses themes of gender and race in her artwork. In Walker’s words, “one theme in my artwork is the idea that a Black subject in the present tense is a container for specific pathologies from the past and is continually growing and feeding off those maladies.” In this way, her artwork is a retrospective on the legacy of racism in the United States. A juxtaposition of her artwork with historical examples of artistic representations of African Americans creates a stark contrast. Although she too depicts a division between blacks and whites—through the historical subject matter as well as the contrasting black and white silhouettes—the disturbing nature of her artwork serves as a challenge rather than a perpetuation of the racial divide. In this way, Walker is reconstructing the narrative of oppression. Considering the history of race relations in America, her artwork is ideologically provocative. The psychological challenge stimulated by her artwork is similar to the current process of many historic house museums across the country today, as they move to rewrite a more complete history of their site.
Modern Representations of Slavery
Increasingly throughout the past decade, several plantation museums across the country have begun to utilize artwork to convey the history of slavery on the site. Destrehan Plantation, located outside New Orleans, Louisiana, has adopted this approach, displaying artwork that serves as a visual link to the history of slavery and resistance in the region. The plantation museum organized an exhibit for the two-hundredth anniversary of the 1811 slave rebellion that resulted in mass casualties of the enslaved population of the region. The display, set up in a slave cabin now devoted to artwork and slave history on the site, includes works by local artist Lorraine Gendron (figure 4). Her works visualize the hundreds of people and emotional spectrum of hope and determination that made up the slave revolt. The goal of the project was to create a display that “you can walk through and get a whole picture of what had happened.” With no previous visual record or retrospective of the event, Gendron’s artistic interpretation creates a powerful image for visitors to engage with. The visual reaches beyond the written historical facts of the event, attributing faces, personhood and identities to the 500 slaves involved in the uprising.
This precedent set by Destrehan Plantation has reverberated throughout museums and historic sites across the country. Hope Plantation, located near Windsor, North Carolina, recently commissioned local artists to paint recognizable landscapes and scenes of the surrounding area. Accompanying these works are labels that link the painted image with the lives of enslaved individuals who had lived on or nearby the plantation. An example is Tracey Bell’s The Halifax Road which is placed in context with the caption “Slaves seeking freedom also followed this inland path to the Underground Railroad.” Each of the series of works on display considers this relationship between the landscape and the history of the African American community of the region. In both the Destrehan and Hope Plantation Museums, artwork provides a powerful method of communicating the unseen history.
Case Study: The Homewood Museum, Baltimore, MD
As discussed in the tradition of the Black Image throughout art history, artwork serves a crucial role in either perpetuating or challenging society’s perspective on race. The artwork of contemporary artist Kara Walker accomplishes the latter, as she confronts the legacy of the depiction of African Americans in artwork. The intent of the exhibit currently on display at the Homewood Museum is also to challenge the limited narrative on slavery at the site. The nature of the chosen artworks, primarily cut paper silhouettes, speaks to the haunting nature of the legacy of oppression. Her silhouettes can be interpreted as shadowy “icons of death.” This understanding of the style of her art serves to memorialize the lives of those who lived and died under the oppressive regime of slavery that she depicts. At the same time, the visual of a silhouette is also reminiscent of caricatures. This link between the tradition of caricatures as illustrations of racial stereotypes and Walker’s silhouette artwork reflects her commentary on the fault of portraying race through the most surface-level attributes, such as skin color. She is conscious of this artistic decision, and uses it to provoke thought on racial profiling. With the stylistic links to earlier artistic trends in history, her artwork “mimics the past, but [remains] all about the present.” In this way, each of the panels on display emphasizes not only the intangible history of the enslaved but also the persistence of racial conflict in the United States today.
The concept of revisiting the history of slavery is apparent in Walker’s work, Untitled (Figure 5). A black silhouette is caught mid-movement, on the run. Set in profile view, the overall rush and fleeting sensation of the work is evident. The imagery is overtly playing on the idea of a runaway slave ad. Replacing the frequently depicted knapsack is a slumped figure reminiscent of a corpse. The identity of the lolled, limp, corpse-like body is unknown. It may represent the remnants of humanity that he carries with him after the abuse of slavery or the burden of those he has left behind in his flight to freedom. Although directly representative of the injustice of slavery and the treatment of other humans as property, it is important to note the appropriation of the runaway advertisement culture by abolitionist groups at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first prominent example of this can be seen in England in 1795 with William Cobbett’s mocking of slave advertisements as a way to draw political attention to the immorality.
This tendency to satirize runaway slave ads as a condemnation of the practice quickly spread throughout the British Empire, with publications as far away as in the Royal Gazette of Jamaicacopying Cobbett’s precedent. By the 1830s, many American abolitionist societies had co-opted this tactic of using the stereotypical image of the runaway coupled with texts of slave accounts to convey the brutality of the practice of chattel slavery. The most prominent example is the 1839 work American Slavery As It Is, Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Rather than place emphasis solely on the moral case for abolition, this work publicized the inhumanity of slavery. The collection of texts was drawn from ads submitted to Southern newspapers. In this way, the abolitionist movement drew fuel from the contemporary runaway accounts to deconstruct the slave system’s inhumanity.
Kara Walker addresses both sides of this historical legacy of the image and accompanying text of runaway ads in her artwork. By leaving her work untitled, Walker makes a statement on the lack of text associated with her depiction of a runaway. Unlike a slave-owner’s newspaper ad, her work purposively lacks the identifying list of characteristics that would have been made with the purpose of reclaiming human property. William Ross, the coachman and butler at Homewood House, ran away in June of 1809. He returned to Homewood nine days later. It is unclear whether he was caught and brought back to Charles Carroll or if he came back of his own accord. Charles Carroll’s runaway ad for William Ross promised a $50 reward for his recapture and described his physical characteristics in detail. The ad illustrates a detailed picture of the man, from his “dark nankeen short jacket, yellow nankeen waistcoat, and new drab colored cloth pantaloon” to his “commonly cued” dark hair. Through her stylistic choices, Walker is re-appropriating the culture of runaway ad imagery that was imposed on African Americans centuries ago. Through this act, she becomes in control of the narrative.
Kara Walker’s artwork, Salvation,(figure 6) depicts intertwined themes of gender and race in a manner reflective of the suffering of Charity Castle, an enslaved woman who lived and worked on the Homewood estate. A black figure flails at the sky, gasping for air. She is drowning. In death, however, she finds salvation. Charity Castle’s life reflects this reality. She injures herself on the woodpile at the Chew home in Philadelphia and must reside in Pennsylvania past the designated manumission time period. Charity Castle’s story is a historical representation of the contemporary artwork—faced with a debilitating physical pain versus the prospect of being returned to Maryland as a slave under Charles Carroll at the Homewood Estate, she chooses physical harm. She sees emancipation in near death. The sleek appearance of the curvilinear lines contrasts sharply with the portrayed agony. In the stark vulnerability of the dying figure, Walker depicts a victim of the oppressive regime that dominated the South for over a century.
This theme of the intersection of gender and race in the context of slavery is further emphasized in the final two panels of the exhibit, which are each installations from a series titled Emancipation Approximation, created by Walker in 1999. The title of the series is an ironic play on Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Modern historical accounts treat Lincoln’s proclamation as a tactical political move rather than an effective and purposeful executive order. The proclamation itself did not free any slaves as it applied only to the Southern states of the Confederacy, which at this point was fighting a war to secede and therefore considered itself no longer under the jurisdiction of the federal government. In this way, it avoided causing controversy among the Union border slave-holding states, of which Maryland was one.
Kara Walker’s titling of her series Emancipation Approximation is a direct play on this weak and “approximate” approach to abolition put forth by President Lincoln. Scene #18 (figure 7) alludes to the structural hierarchy of Southern society and the slave class. The black enslaved woman beneath the white woman in all socio-economic aspects and accessibility, is now depicted physically below her mistress while holding her up, in the lowest possible positioning. This role of the enslaved woman as the supporter of the white mistress is seen in the history of Anna, who was enslaved under Harriet Chew Carroll. Correspondence between Charles Carroll of Homewood and his father reveal the expendable way in which they treated the enslaved, as they discussed replacing the enslaved woman with others until she met her mistress’ needs. This expendability of the enslaved woman is reflected in the non-specific, non-individualized nature of the silhouette.
Walker frequently returns to the divide between the white woman and the black woman in her artwork. Scene #8 (figure 8) depicts a black silhouette on a stark white background. She reaches out to grasp the black laurel wreath, symbolic of a search for freedom from her enslavement. The laurel wreath remains unattainable, however, similar to the way in which Rebecca Ross was denied her freedom by the Carroll family. The indenture document (figure 9), signed by Charles Carroll of Homewood, solidified Rebecca’s tie to the Carroll family even after having to leave Maryland for the free state of Pennsylvania. Her chance at freedom was denied by the legal ability to alter her servile status to perpetuate her enslavement. This is illustrated in the white wash of space between the black silhouette’s outstretched hand and the laurel wreath, which forms a chasm that will persistently work to separate the black enslaved woman from her search for freedom.
Incorporating artwork into the evolving narrative at the Homewood Museum, and many other historic house and plantation museums, presents a visual for the history that is generally unseen throughout the pristine interiors and exteriors of these historic sites. Although working to further research the history of enslaved individuals is a primary step, incorporated texts and lectures on the history do not serve to overtly disrupt the previously established narrative that has been in place for half a century or more. Disturbing the visual complacency of the sites, as seen with the art installations at Destrehan and Hope Plantation and now in the hyphen of the Homewood Museum, demands a more direct engagement and response from visitors. The process of analyzing the available primary sources addressing slavery unveils aspects of the past that are harsh and traumatic.
As discussed in the research of Julie Rose, PhD, difficult history can evoke an aversive reaction on the parts of individuals who are not prepared to cope with the information. Faced with this obstacle, “art can perform what is otherwise impossible: it can represent horror through beauty, it can see beauty in pain, it can force vision beyond the veil of salt tears, it can make the blind see.” The goal of The Enslaved Image: A Contemporary Visualization of Gender & Race exhibit, on display during the Spring-Summer of 2018 at the Homewood Museum, is to accomplish this conveyance of information and thought-provoking discussion. To elicit an emotional response and set in motion the process of grappling with the complicated and painful history, in this context, is the purpose of art.
 Guy McElroy et al., Facing History: The Black Image In American Art, 1710-1940, (San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1990), xi.
 McElroy, Facing History, xi.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 3-4.
 Alex Bontemps, “Seeing Slavery: How paintings make words look different,” Common-place.org.01, no. 4.
 McElroy, Facing History, 5-6.
 Ibid, 6.
 Ibid, 81.
 Ibid, 78.
 National Gallery of Art, “Joshua Johnson.” Collection: Art Object Page.
 Kara Walker and Annette Dixon, Kara Walker: Pictures From Another Time, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2002), 12.
 Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 6.
 Ibid, 5.
 Littice Bacon, “The Largest Slave Revolt in U.S. History Is Commemorated.” NOLA.com. May 11, 2017.
 E. Arnold Modlin, “Representing Slavery at Plantation-House Museums in the U.S. South: A Dynamic Spatial Process,”Historical Geography 39 (06/01): 147, 169.
 Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable, 43.
 Walker and Dixon, Pictures, 20.
 Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 153.
 Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery In England and America, 1780-1865, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 79.
 Ibid, 80.
 Ibid, 84.
 Charles Carrol, William Ross Runaway Advertisement. Newspaper Advertisement. Baltimore: June, 1809. From Homewood Museum Database.
 Kristen Hileman, “Black Box Walker Thomas Details | Baltimore Museum of Art.” Berman Stephen Towns Details | Baltimore Museum of Art. 2017.
 Walker and Dixon, Pictures, 20.
 Ibid, 16.
 Ibid, 17.
 Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Charles Carroll of Carrollton to Charles Carroll of Homewood, September 30, 1808. Letter. From Homewood Museum Database.
 Julia Rose, “Interpreting Difficult Knowledge,”A Publication of the American Association for State and Local History, 66, no. 3 (2011): 2.
 Wood, Blind Memory, 305.
Bacon, Littice. “The Largest Slave Revolt in U.S. History Is Commemorated.” NOLA.com. May 11, 2017. Accessed May 12, 2018. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/01/the_largest_slave_revolt_in_us.html.
Bontemps, Alex. “Seeing Slavery: How paintings make words look different.” Common-place.org.01, no. 4. http://common-place.org/book/seeing-slavery-how-paintings-make-words-look-different/
Carroll, Charles (of Carrollton). Charles Carroll of Carrollton to Charles Carroll of Homewood, September 30, 1808. Letter. From Homewood Museum Database.
Carroll, Charles (of Homewood). William Ross Runaway Advertisement. Newspaper Advertisement. Baltimore: June, 1809. From Homewood Museum Database.
Hileman, Kristen. “Black Box Walker Thomas Details | Baltimore Museum of Art.”Berman Stephen Towns Details | Baltimore Museum of Art. 2017. Accessed May 12, 2018. https://artbma.org/exhibitions/black-box-walker-thomas.
McElroy, Guy C., Henry Louis Gates, and Christopher C French. Facing History: The Black Image In American Art, 1710-1940. San Francisco, CA: Bedford Arts, 1990.
Modlin Jr, E. Arnold. 2011. “Representing Slavery at Plantation-House Museums in the U.S. South: A Dynamic Spatial Process.” Historical Geography 39 (06/01): 147.
National Gallery of Art. “Joshua Johnson.” Collection: Art Object Page. Accessed May 12, 2018. https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1425.html.
Rose, Julia. “Interpreting Difficult Knowledge.” A Publication of the American Association for State and Local History, 66, no. 3 (2011): 1-8.
Sharpe, Christina Elizabeth. Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Walker, Kara Elizabeth, and Annette Dixon. Kara Walker: Pictures From Another Time. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2002.
Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery In England and America, 1780-1865. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.