Painting Shows Slave-Auction Drama

Image of the Week: An 1861 painting from British artist Eyre Crowe captures the anxiety before a sale.

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia, 1861. Oil on canvas, 20 3/4 x 31 1/2 in. Collection of Teresa Heinz.

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

In May of 1861, a strikingly original painting was exhibited at the annual show of the Royal Academy in London. The artist, Eyre Crowe, presented the public with a candid vision of the institution of slavery in the United States: A group of eight black women and young children sit within the dusky interior of a slave sale room. At right, a man is seated separately, his arms tightly folded, with a sober, even angry, look on his face. Behind the main group stands the auctioneer, who looks toward the doorway at the left. Three men have stopped there and seem to be discussing their prospects within. Outside flies a red flag, always put out when a slave sale was proceeding.

Crowe was still relatively little known in London art circles when this picture was exhibited, but he had published several other images related to slavery in the British popular press, as well as another painting showing slaves being transported to their new owners by rail. All of these images were based on his direct experience of the "peculiar institution" gained as an assistant to the popular British author William Makepeace Thackeray on an extended speaking tour along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in 1852-53.

Along the way, he made sketches of his travels. Supplemented by notes from a diary kept during the trip, these formed the basis for a vivid impression of North-South distinctions in the former colonies just before the Civil War. While Thackeray maintained a reserve discrete from the slavery question, Crowe explored it with keen interest.

Fired by his reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe's just-released Uncle Tom's Cabin, and having seen advertisements for slave sales in the Richmond, Va., paper, on the morning of March 3, 1853, he ventured into two of the many slave-auction rooms along Wall Street. In the second one he sketched the scene he would later work up as the finished painting shown in London. His effort to record such a sensitive subject caused a stir in Richmond, one smoothed over with some difficulty by Thackeray and local acquaintances before the two left Richmond to continue the tour farther south.

Critics are unanimous in pointing out the remarkably individual characterization of these slaves. The work, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia, is also arresting because of the almost prequel quality of the moment, a state of awful suspense before the animated bidding begins, a process that will irrevocably alter the lives of these individuals. The slaves are relatively well dressed but in tellingly similar fashion, denoting their servile status. The clothing is intended simply to enhance their sale value and was picked up in nearby shops that catered to the trade.

Despite this artfulness on the part of the sellers, the nature of those on sale as real people is entirely evident. This contrast between appearance and reality shocked viewers of the exhibit. Discerning critics singled it out not only for its realism but also for the artist's effective use of sentimentality, not at all a pejorative judgment for the time, and a quite useful tactic for engaging the public's sympathies.

While viewing Crowe's painting at the Royal Academy, some visitors may have recalled a reduced version of the scene, showing only the group of women and children, which had been reproduced as a wood engraving in the Illustrated London News several years before. There, the faces are rendered quite differently, essentially as caricatures in a manner similar to Crowe's original on-site sketch of the event.

For the finished painting, then, Crowe was aiming at a different impression, a more nuanced treatment of the subject intended for a more discerning audience. He has moved beyond mere reportage to produce a kind of historical document with an appropriate quality of gravitas. By avoiding stereotypes and the obvious, at times patronizing, symbolism of abolitionist imagery, he could most effectively bear witness to the fundamental horror of slavery.

There is no record of the whereabouts of Slaves Waiting for Sale between its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1861 and its appearance on the art market in the mid-20th century. For several decades it has been in the collection of the Heinz family. It is again on public display, as part of a long-term exhibition, "From Slavery to Freedom," at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.