When I was little, the Civil War era fascinated me. I poured over pictures of men in uniforms and women in hoop skirts, and I devoured historical fiction featuring young girls in the Confederate South. I learned that the South seceded because they wanted the right to own slaves, and that the North, land of abolitionists and escaped slaves, fought for African-Americans’ rights to be free. I divided the North and South into two opposite camps of thought; though my post-Civil Rights mind assumed that there must have been some in the South who did not approve of slavery, considering the evil of that institution, I never thought of Northerners as being at all divided. This assumption was proved wrong through my research on the two paintings The Window and Negro Life at the South in the New-York Historical Society Collection.
When I began my research on The Window, painted in 1863 by Thomas Worthington Whittredge, I was confused by its seeming ambiguity on the matter of slavery. The scene depicted here is peaceful and harmonious; yet the subject matter, a black nurse holding a white baby, is and has been a tricky matter at many points of America’s history. The scene is set in the North, where slavery had been illegal for decades, so the nurse is certainly free; but her role as a free woman is remarkably similar to her enslaved counterpart in the South.
I found Negro Life at the South, painted in 1859 by Eastman Johnson, to be equally confusing. The slave house depicted provides a sharp contrast to the slaveowner’s house next door: one is tumbledown and falling apart, while the other is clean and neat. The slaves pictured here look happy and content: the play games, play the banjo, and even flirt. There is one white woman at the edge of the painting; she sits, watching, but does not join in.
Both paintings could be seen as supporting or opposing of slavery. The window is open to a beautiful landscape in The Window, which could be a symbol of hope for slaves; but the black nurse is both physically and socioeconomically trapped inside the house and her role as servant. The slaves’ house pictured in Negro Life at the South is tumbledown, but the slaves are happy and content. There is no evidence of family separation, hard labor, or sadness here.
Why would two Northern men paint scenes that seem fairly content with the existence of slavery, when such fierce battles were being waged, both on and off the field, over this very issue? The answer to this question points to a history more complex than I realized when I was a little girl pouring over Civil War photographs. The truth is that economically the North benefited greatly from slavery, even though officially they were opposed to it. New York City, where both Whittredge and Johnson had studios, was the choice destination for many wealthy Southerners escaping the heat of a Southern summer; and the city’s racism was intense.
The Window and Negro Life at the South were shown at a fair at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1864, in aid of the United States Sanitary Commission, which provided sanitary and medical assistance to the volunteer forces of the Union during the Civil War. Both paintings were eventually bought by a man named Robert L. Stuart, who donated a substantial amount of money to support the Union. He must have seen the messages of the paintings as anti-slavery. Are they indeed anti-slavery? Did the artists seek to romanticize or oppose slavery in these paintings? The answers to these questions is left up to the viewers.