If you have read my previous post, then you would have read and learned about Eastman Johnson and some of his works. Today, I want to delve into more detail on one of his paintings, one entitled Negro Life at the South.
As you can pretty much already guess from taking a quick glance at the picture, Johnson’s painting is a snapshot of the black slaves, or to use what’s in the title, negroes, going about their everyday lives. A mother and her child stares out the open window on the second story, a young couple conversing with each other over on the left, a middle-aged man playing the banjo under the mossy, run down roof with his son right next to him, and a mother spending time with her children in front of the banjo man, presumably telling them stories of her youth. And while none of these activities seem like too torturous for the slaves, Johnson had actually painted this piece to be ambiguous: the painting was made to appease both the North and the South in that it can be interpreted as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery.
Let’s start on analyzing on the pro-slavery side first since we pretty much covered it already. With slavery being a controversial matter back in the 19th century, arguments about why it is a good thing and why it is a bad thing exploded everywhere. The reason why people can interpret this painting as pro-slavery is because, if slavery was such an “inhumane” thing, then why do the slaves in the painting seem to be enjoying themselves so much? The idea was that if what anti-slavery supporters said were true, the slaves should not look that happy.
On the other hand, the piece can be interpreted as anti-slavery propaganda due to the poor living conditions the slaves have to endure every day. They have to endure a hard day’s worth of work only to come back to a run down cottage they’re forced to call “home”. It’s run-down, the paint is peeling off, some of the wooden boards are falling apart, there’s moss growing on the first story roof, and even the fireplace looks charred like it was brought up from the depths of hell.
Johnson’s painting Negro Life at the South not only illustrate slave life in a bad light, but also in a good light.
- Picture of Negro Life at the South can be found here