Black Representation in Postbellum Era Art
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Published: Thu, 14 Jun 2018
Heroes in art and imagery in post-bellum 19th century America
Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, it took a substantial amount of time for the representation of African-American people in American art to establish itself beyond the grotesque and the caricatured. Before slavery and the plantations were outlawed due to the civil war, American representation of blacks were shown as cartoon caricatures; as generic, racial stereotypes with no individuality of their own. This is demonstrated by a number of artworks prevalent at the time. Blackness was either relegated to the sidelines of the paintings, sculpture and engravings, or else excluded completely from the image. And although the outlawing of slavery was done in order to generate equality and liberty across the United States, racism was still prevalent, and it would also take some time before the actual identity of blackness in the United States managed to transcend that of an oppressed, racial stereotype, and began to take on and represent a history and a culture of its own, instead of merely providing the negative for the representation of whiteness. A great many critics argue that this breakthrough was made ironically by a sculpture made and funded by white people, in the Shaw’s Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Despite Saint-Gauden’s obvious inclinations towards racial stereotyping in words (his memoirs justify this statement), thanks to a number of coincidences, his artistic credibility, and the amount of time he was given to produce this sculpture, he managed to represent blackness not as caricatured, but as a disparate but unified whole. But some critics of the Shaw Memorial still uphold the belief that it is inherently racist. In the following essay, I will look briefly at the history of black representation in the art of post-bellum America, than engage in a closer analysis of the Shaw Memorial, in order to see exactly what is being represented and how.
Monumental sculpture in particular had a great history in providing people with allusions to the real, held as less of an illusion than the representations made in other arts, such as painting. The representation of Apollo in the famous sculpture had provided people with a benchmark for human aesthetic beauty for thousands of years, and sculpture seemed conducive to the production and the replication of this ideal human form. This has serious implications for the evolution of how Black American slaves in postbellum America were represented. Kirk Savage suggests that: “Sculpture’s relation to the human body had always been more direct and intimate than painting’s: the sculptor’s main task was not to create illusions on a flat surface but to reproduce three-dimensional bodies in real space.” Additionally, because of the importance by which public sculpture was held at the time, as a monument dedicated to, rather than imposed upon the community, the development of a realistic representation of the African American body in the art of the time is not to be underestimated. Savage goes on to say: “The sculpture of antiquity thus became an authenticating document of a normative white body, a ‘race’ of white men.” The fair representation of blackness in sculpture was therefore central to the cause of representing blackness as equal in America. However, it would still be some time before the representation of the hero would be anything but white. This white hero occurred on both sides of the slavery divide, as those from the South would paint a picture of the generous, selfless plantation owner, whereas those from the North would paint an equally white picture of figures fighting for the liberty of black slaves. From the Journal of Popular Culture: “In the postbellum reminiscences, a slaveholder’s chivalric spirit was manifested through feats of selfless generosity.” Also, representations of the South didn’t differ: “refusing to concede an exclusive grant of heroic title to the friends and relatives of slaveholders, those who had gloried in the 1865 Union victory demanded an equal chance to create their own champions of popular culture. In the manner of their southern counterparts, they sought to ‘rescue from oblivion’ the ‘true’ history of an ‘unpretending, liberty-loving and Christian people.’” So, despite the liberal intentions of the North, their representations of blacks were still stuck in a post-plantation world: the blacks were to be represented as symbols of otherness – of cartoon caricatures, and only there to represent their emancipation by the heroes of white culture that had freed them.
Sculpture is also a particularly difficult medium with which to represent skin colour, because the tone of the skin cannot directly be represented: “Since sculpture was understood then to be monochromatic, sculptors could not represent skin color directly.” How then, was skin colour represented in the medium? In John Roger’s Slave Auction (1859) blackness is represented as a series of facial features. He is identified by his position in front of the stand, but also by his curly hair and his full lips. By representing the Negro as defiant, with arms crossed, “the work attracted the attention of some local abolitionist newspapers and acquired a limited public reputation.” However, the problem was still unresolved: of how to represent an image of blacks in sculpture that wasn’t patronising, denigrating or clichéd, which still represented the identity of blackness in what was essentially a monochromatic medium. Savage continues: “artists after the Civil War faced the great challenge of representing a society recently emancipated from slavery, that brought to the task various assumptions and images that had been deeply ingrained by the system of slavery and by the long campaign to abolish it.” Blackness was, in effect, so heavily linking to its white-established origins of slavery, that it was a seemingly impossible task to represent it in any other way, never mind to represent blackness in a heroic light.
Due to the uniform way in which blackness was represented, it was impossible to reconcile the image of a black hero with this symbol of the homogenised masses, either there to be emancipated, or else enslaved by the dominant white society that controlled politics, society and the power mechanisms of postbellum America. If blacks were represented at all, they would be seen as stereotypes of a series of white-defined black assumptions concerning black facial imagery. Fryd suggests that: “It is possible that because of the continuous threat of disunion from slavery, both northerners and southerners felt that they needed to banish blacks from the artworks.” Because of the knotty subject matter concerning black autonomy, it took a while before blacks could be represented as heroic even in the slightest. This representation is epitomised by the painting Cornwallis Sues for Cessation of Hostilities under the Flag of Truce (1857). In it, a black man is seen hiding in the far right corner of the painting, his face obscured by a hat, wedged behind two white officials. The dark background, coupled with his dark clothing and dark face disguises his presence in the picture. He is also seen with an earring, curly black hair and thick lips; a typically stereotypical representation of blackness. Fryd suggests that: “The figure is barely visible given the prominence of the three central figures, and the importance of Washington in this ceremonial painting celebrating the general’s astute ploy to force the British surrender.” So, the image of the hero is used here to grab the attention and, while the other white people rally round and bask in the nobility and the light of Washington, the black man is confined to the far right of the page, looking somewhat sheepish, and ostracised from the composition by his colour and his position in the painting.
So, postbellum art, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, was still primarily concerned with representing blackness as something passive; something to which things had to be done, whether this thing was emancipation or else slavery. The development of Shaw’s Memorial, and the numerous copies that Saint-Gaudens later made in an attempt to perfect his masterpiece, in many ways marks a turning point in the development of an autonomous series of black characters, noted for their individuality, as well as their allegiance to a particular racial and socio-economic group. However, the presence of Shaw, and the titling of the monument (the Shaw Memorial dictates that Shaw is the most important character), as well as his composition, leads us into thinking about the following question: Is the Shaw Memorial a sophisticated representation of blackness in post-bellum art, or is it simply a similar propagation of the racist values of whiteness held previously? Of course, it is impossible to divorce the Shaw Memorial entirely from perceiving the African Americans as an oppressed group because, historically, they were. Savage argues that: “The Shaw Memorial introduced the element of black recognition into the more conventional worship of white heroism.” Indeed, the depiction of heroism is intrinsic to the understanding of this piece: although the African-Americans are seen as a group of people, they are also, thanks to the meticulous and painstaking sculptural perfectionism of Saint-Gaudens, seen as individuals, as Saint-Gaudens used models found on the streets of New York to develop a realistic depiction of a great variety of black people. However, Saint-Gauden’s choice of developing and individuating the black soldiers at the bottom of the piece was also due to economics and artistic integrity, more than actually consciously trying to represent blackness: he says in his memoirs that “through my extreme interest in it and its opportunity, [I] increased the conception until the rider grew almost to a statue in the ground and the Negroes assumed far more importance than I had originally intended.” The prejudices of the sculptor was also clear, and releases all manner of underlying problems with the authenticity behind how blackness is represented in the piece:
“It is fascinating that this exploration of black diversity came from the hands of a white man who shared the common racial prejudices of the white elite. In his memoirs, Saint-Gaudens writes quite disparagingly about his black models, who are brought into the story merely as comic relief. They come odd as foolish, deceptive, and superstitious, though Saint-Gaudens is careful to say that he likes them for their ‘imaginative, though simple, minds.’”
Indeed, Saint-Gaudens textual representation of Negroes was as fraught in stereotype as the average member of the white elite, but somehow, due to the nature of his artistic perfectionism, as well as the conditions for producing a statue with the singular intention of promoting racial awareness, he managed to transcend these barriers of personal prejudice and made something that helps not simply to represent blackness as a patronising simulacrum of white values, but represents blacks as they are, in a way that is not patronising or denigrating. It is also fair to assume that the economic conditions of the artwork surpassed the actual intentions of the master sculptor, which was, at least according to early drafts, simply to represent Shaw as a great leader, without any direct or detailed representation of blackness. But, as time passed, Saint-Gaudens became more interested in representing blackness: “Deciding instead to represent the soldiers as distinct individuals, he became fascinated with the material reality of their own diversity. He wanted the defy military uniformity, on the one hand, and racial caricature on the other; both in their own ways were strategies of standardization. For the sculptor, blackness did not become a leveling trait but a field in which to create a rich interplay of internal differences.” It was this rich interplay that served to develop the heroic quality of blackness in art in 19th century American art. As the statue stands, the individuation of blacks serves to treat them as heroes, albeit heroes of a group, rather than a singular hero held in noble esteem.
The white officer, however, is still glorified over and above the black soldiers that march underneath. Despite his lowly position in the ranks of the army, he is glorified simply because of his position leading the “despised race”. This is a problematic issue: “…racial difference [of making Shaw representative of a group of black soldiers] made this idea of representation problematic at best. Could Shaw, a high-born white man, represent a regiment of black troops?” Thus, the position of Shaw as hero, towering above the distinct blacks, renders the usage of the standard equestrian imagery slightly uncomfortable. However, Saint-Gaudens also uses rhythm in a sense to convey that Shaw does not dominate the black soldiers, but leads them instead. Shaw holds a sword that is angled in rhythm to the marching soldiers. The horse is strained, but Shaw holds it back, and the whole image is composed to generate both diversity, and homogeneity. In the representation of blackness, for instance: “we see the drummer boy juxtaposed with the sergeant behind him, the youngest member of the group with the oldest, smooth skin with beard, short stature with height; but if we read into depth, other more subtle contrasts emerge too, of facial hair, cheekbone, nose and eye shape. […] In this way the overall impression of uniformity – of identically clad soldiers marching perfectly in step, rhyming each other’s body movements – is changed and enriched by a kind of contrapuntal rhythm of diversity.”
In postbellum art, the concern was primarily with establishing the autonomous and individuated identity of a previously oppressed group of people, while maintaining the traditional structures of the depiction of the hero, with respective notions of beauty, leadership and nobility, that proved to be a problematic mix to endeavour to achieve. Thus, the South turned to the plantation owners for their heroes – the chivalric and generous heroes, displaying their generosity towards the blacks, and treating their assumed inferiority with compassion and grace. Similarly, in the North, the contemporary hero of postbellum art was the white emancipator of the blacks, fighting for the freedom of this oppressed race of people. The result was that the hero didn’t particularly change race, and that common perceptions of human aesthetic beauty, a notion that went back to Greek times, remained largely the same. However, despite taking on the traditional format of the equestrian hero statue, the Shaw Memorial assists in combining these two glaringly contrasting issues, by depicting both the individuality and the homogeneity of the black cause, as well as preserving the image of the white hero – Saint-Gaudens does this using subtle techniques of composition, by combining rhythm, and by representing a great swathe of meticulously studied, and strikingly different black faces, that ultimately combine to produce “interplay” in racial profiling. Savage comments that: “In this monument Saint-Gaudens was able to elevate the white hero without demoting the black troops.” and it is testament to his genius that, despite his personal prejudices, he managed to fully articulate and display through the medium of monumental art, the autonomy, yet the solidarity of an entire race of people, within the context of the traditional white hero monument.
Berlin, I., Slaves Without Masters, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1974
Burchard, P., One Gallant Rush, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1965
Deburg, W. L. V., The Battleground of Historical Memory: Creating Alternative Culture Heroes in Postbellum America, from Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 20, pp. 49 – 62
Dryfhout, J. H., The Work Of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, University Press of New England, London, 1982
Fryd, V. G., Art and Empire: The Poltics of Ethnicity in the United States Capitol, 1815-1860, Yale University Press, London, 1992
Saint-Gaudens, A., Reminiscences, Vol 1., Century Co, New York: 1913
Savage, K., Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1997
Images referred to the text:
The Slave Auction (1859) by John Rogers
Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (1897) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
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