William Moore Davis, Drawing a Bead on a Woodchuck, 1850s. Oil on canvas, 40.6 cm by 54 cm.
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Two young men, one white, one black, have stopped in a grassy meadow, bordered by a split-rail fence, in search of game. The older boy carefully takes aim at a woodchuck, or groundhog, who sits somewhere outside the scene to the right. Considerably younger than his companion, the black youth covers his ears in anticipation of the shot.

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More than a description of common experience, the scene evokes the shooter’s coming of age as he takes on some of the responsibility of providing for his family. A member of the local farming community, he hunts out of necessity, not sport.

The sharp crack of the rifle will soon disturb the sun-dappled tranquillity of the idyllic setting. The scene is typical of the low-lying terrain of eastern Long Island, N.Y. Using the rustic device of the fallen split-rail fence, the artist sets up a clear demarcation between civilization and wilderness, technology and untamed nature, thereby evoking the human impact on the land in mid-19th-century America.

Though unsigned, this detailed transcription of rural life has convincingly been attributed to William Moore Davis, a little-studied painter of genre and still life. Davis lived most of his life in his hometown of Port Jefferson on Long Island. Around 1850 he began to paint, soon demonstrating a sure talent that endeared him to his neighbors as “Painter Davis.”

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The vibrant rays of the rising sun pick out every detail of the kneeling boy’s figure. In contrast with the white boy’s determined concentration, the black youth stands in the shadows behind him. Though the white boy’s clothes are far from new, those of the black youth are ill-fitting and heavily patched. Such a succinct indication of material difference underscores the general disparity of wealth and opportunity that more often than not separated the experience of race on the island.

Despite the poverty of his condition, the black youth is clearly not enslaved. The institution was legislated out of existence in the state of New York long before his appearance in the painting. Other kinds of legally sanctioned restrictions did, however, perpetuate the already existing and profound racial divide created under slavery. Even so, for the two youths, the true impact of such inequities may not yet be felt. Alone in the meadow, they occupy a liminal zone of camaraderie just before they confront the customary social alignments of adult life.

Although practically self-taught, Davis seems to have quickly made the acquaintance of William Sidney Mount. A fellow native of Long Island, the older artist had become a nationally acclaimed painter of the local scene. Many of Mount’s works center around the enjoyment of music, an art form in which he was also proficient.

African Americans figure prominently in Mount’s scenes of musicians. Black and white subjects alike were drawn from residents of local towns and villages. Davis quite likely has followed his mentor’s example in this respect, too. The individualized features of these young men enhance the convincing treatment of anticipation that charges the scene.

Davis never formally studied with Mount, but he was clearly influenced by the older artist’s treatment of the mundane life of his own community. During the 1850s, the two artists spent most of their time on Long Island, just as Davis’ artistic development was most in flux. Davis’ carefully studied scene of the youthful hunter and his black companion emerges from his close familiarity with the mature work of his friend and mentor. As far as is known, African Americans never again appeared in his work. Perhaps because of its unique position within his work, Drawing a Bead on a Woodchuck stands out as the most nuanced exploration of any subject produced during Davis’ long career.

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Given that this work was painted on the eve of the Civil War, a host of associations with race and the upcoming national conflict come to mind. The carefully managed composition exemplifies the unequal relationship between white and black that existed in the region both before and after the great conflict.

Davis not only absorbed the subtle contrasts between social status and race within Mount’s subjects but also carried them forward to suggest the future that lay in store for both young men. Light, demonstration of agency and relative positioning within the scene paint an image of the wider world of social stratification encompassing them. The white hunter’s kneeling figure and concentrated gaze, not to mention the empowering attribute of his rifle, take center stage in the spotlighted foreground. The black youth apprehensively waiting upstage in the shadows plays a crucial role in the development of charged suspense pervading the scene.

With the advent of the Civil War, the positions of the two youths may soon have converged in a common cause. Both the black youth and the white hunter can be imagined, while still young, as Union soldiers in the coming struggle for emancipation.

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Davis’ own obliquely addressed views on slavery reinforce the validity of such speculation. He produced three trenchant pictorial diatribes against the Southern cause during the Civil War. One, a masterpiece of realism, presented an imaginary torn and faded print of Confederate President Jefferson Davis mounted behind a pane of broken glass. Titled The Neglected Picture, it was exhibited to public acclaim in the window of a New York art dealer. Its potency as an affirmation of union was widely disseminated in the form of small photo reproductions mounted on card stock, called cartes de visites.

Another painting, more symbolic but equally descriptive, evoked the futility of the Southern cause in the form of a tombstone bearing the Latin inscription Hic jacet secess (“Here lies secession”), surrounded by the weapons of a Confederate soldier.

The paths of the two young men in the painting could well have diverged after the war. The black youth muffling the sound of the rifle shot could anticipate a considerably less privileged life than his white companion. The general emancipation of slaves in New York state had taken effect in 1827, about a generation earlier than Davis’ emergence as a painter. Freedom, however, came about within firmly circumscribed limits.

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The guarantee of the right to vote would come only with the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870. The sympathetic but peripheral inclusion of blacks in Mount’s paintings, however, subtly expressed his real fear of economic competition from African Americans living in the North. Davis, on the other hand, seems to have genuinely accepted the aspirations of his black neighbors, a view nascently expressed in his image of the young hunter and his companion.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.