Reference Entry

Art and Illustration

James Smalls

in A Historical Guide to World Slavery

Published in print January 1998 | ISBN: 9780195120912
Art and Illustration

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Generally speaking, slavery and the slave trade have rarely been subject matter for art. Although many artists from different parts of the globe produced an image or two reflecting the practice of human enslavement, most avoided the topic altogether for political, ideological, or esthetic reasons. The visualization of slavery and the slave trade through art is an inherently political act that automatically positions an artist as either pro- or anti-slavery. The visual representation of slavery or the slave trade was for the most part instigated by and parallel in development with abolitionist movements.With the increase in anti-slavery sentiment throughout Europe and the United States during the late eighteenth century and throughout most of the nineteenth, there developed a need for visual propaganda to support the cause. Thus most graphic representations were didactic, intended to stir sympathy and outrage in the viewer. Most were rendered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in such forms as etchings, engravings, or other print media to accompany the text of abolitionist books, pamphlets, and political tracts. They periodically surfaced in such illustrated publications as Harper's Weekly, the London Illustrated News, L'Illustration, and Le Tour du Monde. Many of these images were fashioned anonymously and left unsigned. Because of the volatile political nature of slave-trade imagery and the reluctance of most art-lovers to patronize such work, far fewer paintings and sculptures were created representing slavery's brutalizing history.The artists who chose slavery or the slave trade as subject material for art rarely experienced the institution at first hand. Most culled their visual information from second- and third-hand accounts based on writings by travelers, explorers, and missionaries, whose descriptive detail regarding the acquisition and treatment of slaves tended to be sensationally embellished.The nature of slavery as a subject of graphic art, and the kind and number of images produced, depended on the quality and quantity of historic contact between the enslaver as member of a particular nation, and the enslaved. Owing to very early contacts between the Netherlands and parts of Africa, Dutch artists began representing black Africans in their works of art as early as the fourteenth century. However, in terms of direct representations of slavery and its abolition, the history of contact between England and Africa and between England and the United States was longer and much more extensive than was that between Africa and France, for example. As a result there exists more visual information on the slave trade from England and the United States than from continental Europe or from other parts of the Americas. In the United States and Britain artists tended to use narrative and genre formats for representations of slavery or the slave trade. Owing to these countries' more extensive contacts with Africans, there was in general a lesser tendency there to idealize or romanticize.France's history of relations with the African continent was less extensive but just as significant. Slavery within France was strictly forbidden by a decree dating back to the Middle Ages. Slaves who were imported into the country had to be registered with the government and acquired the status of either “servant” or free. These kinds of legal loopholes in the metropolis did not, however, prevent the brutalizing practice of slavery in France's distant Caribbean colonies. Because of this history, French artists tended to set slave imagery in a more subtle and exotic tradition designed to appeal to emotions guided by Enlightenment principles. French artists frequently made use of allegory and tended to apply erotic connotations, lavish coloration, highly contrived compositions, and atmospheric settings to the raw themes of slavery (Figure 3).Artists from England were particularly prone to using graphic art an as effective teaching tool to showcase the horrors of slavery as an institution. Typically, moralistic and humanistic themes predominated. Scenes were often rendered to stir religious, moral, and emotional sentiment against the practice of human bondage and trade. They appealed especially to the Quakers in their abolitionist causes. In mid-eighteenth century England one result of the Industrial Revolution was the popularization of anti-slavery politics and the commercialization of abolitionist imagery. An entire popular visual culture evolved around the issues of slavery and abolition. Many anti-slavery medallions, medals, cameos, pins, and other trinkets were mass-produced and marketed to a large consumer public. One, a cameo seal by Josiah Wedgwood called Am I Not a Man and a Brother?, showing a kneeling and shackled slave, became the most popular and recognizable emblem of abolitionism in England as well as on the European continent.African slavery was not the only form of slavery depicted by artists. In the United States, for example, the importation and involuntary enslavement of the Chinese (the so-called coolie trade) was represented by exploiting the same themes of brutality that had been used to show black enslavement (Figure 6). In Europe white slavery—the capture and involuntary imprisonment of white women and eunuchs in harems of North Africa and the Near East—was a popular visual subject. Whereas black slavery was usually presented in unpolished graphic terms, images of white slavery formed part of a lavish exotic tradition in art called Orientalism, which tended to be both highly descriptive and intensely sensuous. As a popular genre of literary and visual art, Orientalism was practiced by artists of almost all European and European-American nations, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century.Whether presented in the raw and direct manner of American images of slavery and the slave trade, or in the more subtle and enigmatic portrayals of human bondage by the French, there are six general areas or themes on which artists based such depictions: blatant acts of cruelty such as flogging and other forms of torture (Figures 1, 2, and 6); scenes of capture and transport from Africa (Figures 3–5); activities aboard slave ships during the Middle Passage (Figures 6–9); slave resistance and fugitives (Figures 10–11); slave auctions and sales (Figures 12–13); and plantation labor or house servitude.Because they were intended primarily as propaganda to stir anti-slavery sentiment, most graphic illustrations of slavery's practices were deliberately crafted to expose the horrors and cruelties of the institution. In England a diagrammatic representation of a slave ship, the Brookes of Liverpool (Figure 9), was published just one year after the founding of the British Abolitionist Society in 1788. The image shows how slave ships were loaded with human cargo for transport. It is an image of depersonalized humanity in which people are turned into objects of merchandise. The illustration was meant to have an emotional impact on those who saw it and to remind them of the horrors of the Middle Passage. Quakers hung it on the walls of their homes to inspire their benevolence and stir sympathy. The print was distributed to members of Parliament to urge political influence against the slave trade. It was also disseminated on the European continent, where shortly thereafter the French produced their own version.Within a decade of the appearance of the Brookes of Liverpool print, the English artist William Blake produced a series of images to accompany John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). One engraving from this text, A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows (Figure 1), graphically records the abominable tortures and cruel punishments inflicted on slaves. Even though the artist himself never witnessed such horrors, the stark graphic medium serves well to give the illusion of truthful documentation. Stedman's account of the slave uprising and reprisal in Suriname was very popular and was instrumental in swaying the reading public to supporting abolition.Figure 1. A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows; engraving, William Blake, from John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).Figure 2. Châtiment des quatre piquets dans le colonies (Punishment of Four Stakes in the Colonies); painting, Marcel Verdier, 1849; Menil Collection, Houston.Figure 3. Slave Market on the West Coast of Africa; painting, François-Aguste Biard, 1840; Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums Art Gallery and Archives.Figure 4. The Slave Trade; painting, George Morland, 1788; The British Museum.Figure 5. Marché d'esclaves (Slave Market); engraving for F. Chambon's Le commerce de l'Amérique par Marseille (1764).J. M. W. Turner's Slave Ship (1840, Figure 8) makes direct reference to the slave trade and the Middle Passage in the medium of oil painting. It was inspired by the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson's Cries of Africa and by a poem by James Thomson describing the slave ship Zong, which sailed from West Africa in September 1781 with a cargo of 470 slaves bound for Jamaica. The ship had been caught in a typhoon, and the captain had ordered a large number of slaves thrown overboard so he could collect on the insurance. The abolitionists used the incident to promote their position. Even though British colonial slavery had been technically abolished in 1834, Turner used the event six years later as a means to keep the atrocities of slavery uppermost in the public mind. The work, shown in the Royal Academy of 1840, is essentially a Romantic exercise of pessimistic fascination with human and elemental violence. Turner was more interested in expressing an overall effect than in describing or making a political statement, but his painting underscores the horrors of the Middle Passage by displaying the body parts of slaves strewn in the ocean amid debris (note the shackled leg at right). Such powerful imagery had a lasting and chilling effect on those who had been either neutral to or ignorant of the slave-trading business.The first visual image to give a full account of the slave-trade operation came from a French book on commerce (Figure 5, Marché d'esclaves, copper engraving for Chambon, Le Commerce de l'Amérique par Marseille, 1764). Like most illustrations of the slave trade produced in France during the eighteenth century, this one was designed to incite anti-slavery sentiment by subtly arousing the viewer's sensibility. Even though France was where the first graphic image pertaining to the slave trade was produced, England saw the earliest recorded painting of slave trading to be exhibited (Figure 4, George Morland, The Slave Trade, 1788). Characteristic of art from England on this subject is a moralizing tendency and the use of literary references to appeal to both the emotions and the intellect of a literate middle-class public.The subversive potential of visual art to stir thoughts of slave retaliation and to spark abolitionist fervor was of concern to many pro-slavers. Revolts on slave ships were depicted frequently in art. Although images such as these were intended to document and provoke abolitionist outrage at slave-trading, they were often too picturesque to have any real influence in ending the practice. In addition, the text with which such imagery was associated rarely condemned the institution outright.Figure 6. Preserving the Peace; illustration from Harper's Weekly, volume 29, June 1864.Figure 7. Nègres à fond de calle (Negroes in the Ship's Hold); print by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1827, for his Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil (1827–1835); National Library of Jamaica.Figure 8. Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On); painting, J. M. W. Turner, 1840; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Figure 9. Brookes of Liverpool; printed propaganda broadside of the London Abolition Society, 1789.Figure 10. Slaves Escaping through the Swamp; painting, Thomas Moran, 1862; The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa.More to the taste of those who supported slavery were depictions of slave auctions and scenes of fugitives (Figures 10–13). Ironically, these also formed two major programmatic abolitionist themes in the American visual representation of slavery and the slave trade. Their focused attention on traumatic events such as the heartless separation of families could be read as serious appeals to the abolitionist cause. Unlike the situation in Europe, there was less demand from American abolitionists for depictions of the horrors of slavery. Nonetheless, a healthy amount of imagery focusing on the physical brutality inflicted on slaves was produced in print or graphic form in the United States during the nineteenth century. The most notable group of American images of slave brutalization were those destined to be included in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Stowe was herself an amateur artist and played a hand in selecting the illustrations for her immensely popular anti-slavery book. Artist Hammett Billings was hired to draw most of these illustrations; typically, they were based on second-hand written sources rather than on eyewitness accounts. Scenes included slave auctions and the breakup of families, floggings, the hunting down of runaways, and other displays of physical and psychological abuse endemic to slavery. Billings avoided caricature and presented most scenes in a matter-of-fact manner that served to make the abolitionist point even stronger. Both Stowe's book and its illustrations were popular and internationally influential. The British were particularly moved by them. Inspired by both the imagery and Stowe's text, the English artist Thomas Moran created Slaves Escaping through the Swamp (1862, Figure 10). Its focus on the damp expanse of swampland and the uniquely American practice of hunting slaves with blood-hounds made the picture a sensation in England. In a similar vein, Richard Ansdell created his dramatic Hunted Slaves (1861, Figure 11) exhibited at the Royal Academy. This image was highly regarded by public and critics alike and was widely reproduced in print form.In 1827 Johann Moritz Rugendas executed a print titled Nègres à fond de calle, illustrative of the slave trade to Brazil (Figure 7). This image is unique because Rugendas was an eyewitness to the scene. The work serves as his memory of seeing the hold of a slave ship when he joined a scientific mission to the Brazilian interior financed by the Russian government. This was to be one of several prints serving as illustrations for his book Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil, published between 1827 and 1835. Although Rugendas softened the horrors of the scene, the atmosphere is evocative of an overcrowded and fetid environment typical of slave ships. The work is intended to be informative rather than declamatory or emotive, but it is picturesque and translates the graphic horrors suggested by the Brookes of Liverpool and by Blake's horrific print into an accessible and memorable scene.Whereas Rugendas's Nègres à fond de calle had been the first explicit image to show the slave trade in the French Salon, Auguste Biard's Slave Market on the West Coast of Africa (Figure 3) was the first large-scale oil painting on the subject to be exhibited in the Salon, where it appeared in 1835. At that time it received no critical attention, perhaps as a result of apathy toward overseas slavery in France in particular and on the European continent in general in the 1830s. Five years later, however, it was exhibited in the Royal Academy in London and caused a sensation. The work purports to function as a documentary print showing the practice of the selling of slaves by African chiefs to European traders. It was intended to implicate both white slave-traders and black Africans in the slave trade. However, it is ineffective as an abolitionist statement and is basically a series of sensationalized vignettes that work actually to glorify and romanticize slavery while simultaneously posturing as a serious anti-slavery manifesto. Such is the ambiguity of art that tackles themes of slavery, the slave trade, and abolition.Even though most blatant acts of cruelty toward slaves were illustrated in the print rather than fine-art medium, there were some exceptions. For example, Marcel Verdier's Châtiment des quatre piquets dans les colonies (1843, but dated 1849; Figure 2) exposes the cruelties and evils of slavery. The quatre piquets was a form of punishment described in the abolitionist literature in which the stripped victim was pegged by the extremities to the ground and mercilessly whipped. The physical and psychological suffering of the slaves and the cruel indifference of the slavemaster are emphasized. Other artists, such as the Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller, witnessed and documented this and other forms of cruel punishment in the Antilles in extensive print series. Verdier's painting was briefly shown in the Salon of 1843 but was refused further exhibition out of fear that it might stir rebellious unrest among sympathetic onlookers. The work was exhibited subsequently in an alternate venue and later reproduced in L'Illustration. Again, the artist never witnessed such a scene at first hand but instead pieced together a series of sensationalized vignettes culled from written descriptions. The artist's changing the picture's apparent date from 1843 to 1849, one year after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, was a politically strategic move intended to remove the stigma of French involvement in such activities. This kind of manipulation of slave imagery and the facts related to it was common practice by artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Verdier's act shows that the subject of slavery, whether treated directly or indirectly in art, before or after abolition, remained a politically explosive and emotionally charged subject for both artist and viewer.Figure 11. Hunted Slaves; painting, Richard Ansdell, 1861; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.Figure 12. After the Sale: Going South from Richmond; painting, Eyre Crowe, 1853; Chicago Historical Society.Figure 13. Slave Auction; painting, artist unknown, c. 1850s; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

Reference Entry.  2917 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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