Thursday, February 9, 2012

British artist exposed "the peculiar institution"

Fine art depictions of enslaved African Americans from a sympathetic eye are always interesting, in no small part because of their rarity, so I was intrigued to come across the work of Eyre Crowe, examined in a new book by art historian Maurie McInnis called Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade. In 1853, Crowe toured America as novelist William Thackeray's secretary, making sketches of what he saw in Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans, and other points south. Many of them appeared in the Illustrated London News (which was also read in America). He later created several paintings from the drawings, chief among them the powerful work "Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia," below. 

The focus of this beautiful composition is on the dignity of the people awaiting their fate and on the pathos of their situation, whereas their callous captors are scuttled to the side in a manner that can only be deliberate. The sweetness of the mothers holding their children is heartbreaking, considering the all-too-common practice of rending families apart. (Click here to see a high-res version.)
The painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy just months after the American Civil War began, captures the "individual emotional cost of American slavery," and is an "unusual image that had never been seen before," McInnis told the University of Virgina blog uvatoday. Images of the slave trade usually focused on the sale: viz the iconic one of the auctioneer with his hand raised. At the time, Britain followed the news of the war closely and debated whether or not to become involved. To McInnis, Crowe's work reveals "the power of images in helping viewers then, and today, to see the slave trade in new ways and thus helped to spread anti-slavery sentiment." Crowe is seen at left in an 1864 photograph by David Wilkie Wynfield. Below are several more of his sketches and a painting called "After the Sale," with a mother apparently handing off a baby to its father.
"Charleston Slave Sale"
"After the Sale"

"Slave Auction: Richmond"

For further reading, we have five related books, including the writings and thoughts of Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass on slavery, as well as autobiographies of escaped slaves, a history of the 13th Amendment, and The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves.


  1. To think these were on display at an exhibition at the beginning of the Civil War is amazing! Such important work that should NEVER be forgotten. That Crowe displayed the then-neglected "other side" of the slave trade is every bit as important now...

  2. Very important, very true. Mr Fink I completely agree with you this work/art "...should NEVER be forgotten."

  3. A lot of artwork from this time period seems to never be displayed. I believe that it often times brings us back the remembrance of how things were and its often times can be an uncomfortable feeling. I am glad an artist was able to capture the raw emotions in these pictures.

  4. Although visually riveting these images do little to capture the true turmoil faced by these individuals and their families as they were sold off into a life of servitude. However what was conveyed by Mr. Crowe's drawings does give future generations a snapshot of this often omitted side of the slave trade.

  5. It is so important to look at & feel uncomfortable about these images. This time period is shockingly close to us - in terms of generations - and it makes so little sense.

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