Painting Shows Slave-Auction Drama

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

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 He has moved beyond mere reportage to produce a kind of historical document with an appropriate quality of gravitas.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.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. 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.