Friday, February 10, 2012

Thomas Satterwhite Noble [American Painter, 1835-1907]

"The Last Sale of Slaves," oil on canvas by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1871

With emancipation a fait accompli by 1865, one might ask why Kentucky-born Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907), former Confederate soldier, son of a border state slaveholder, began painting slaves then. Noble had known the “peculiar institution” at first hand, albeit from a privileged position within the master class. As a result, his choice to embark upon a career as a painter using historical incidents from slavery makes for an interesting study.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble, John Brown's Blessing (1867)

Were the paintings a way of atoning for his Confederate culpability, a rebel pounding his sword into a paintbrush to appease the conquering North? Or was he capitalizing on his unique geographic perspective as a scion of slave-trafficking Frankfort, Kentucky, soon to head a prestigious art school in Cincinnati, the city where so many runaways first tasted freedom?

"The Price of Blood" by Thomas Satterwhite Noble
"The Price of Blood" by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1868. Oil on canvas.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble's painting The Price of Blood directly addresses the atrocities of the slave trade. A well-dressed man, who is wearing his hat as if he is a visitor, stands, reading a piece of paper, behind the table on which there are stacks of gold. The man seated in the foreground is wearing a smoking jacket and slippers, which indicates the scene must be taking place in his home. Behind him a painting depicting the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac hangs on the wall. At the left, a young man of mixed race who is not well dressed, with a tattered straw hat and no shoes, stands assertively and looks away from the event taking place. Looking closely, one may notice that the seated man and the young boy have similar facial features—so similar that they must be related. The old man is selling his mixed-race son into slavery. The gold on the table is the price of his blood.

Between 1865 and 1869 Noble exhibited in northern cities a total of eight paintings with African American subjects. Two of these, The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis (1865, repainted ca. 1870) and Margaret Garner (1867), featured mixed-race women, or mulattos, as they had come to be called.  From a young female up for auction, to the famous fugitive Margaret Garner, his portrayals show a transformation taking place within perceptions of biracial women in post-emancipation America. Opinions about mulattos surfaced in a range of theoretical discussions, from the scientific to the political, as strategists North and South envisioned evolving social policy. (source: Cambridge University)

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