Black Power, 19th-Century Style

The black man in this Belgian sculpture is empowered -- the antithesis of a slave.

Victor Van Hove, Vengeance; before 1859. Painted plaster, 71 by 225 cm. Ronse, Town Hall (on loan from Brussels)
Victor Van Hove, Vengeance; before 1859. Painted plaster, 71 by 225 cm. Ronse, Town Hall (on loan from Brussels)

(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.

A superbly muscled black man lies on a featureless terrain, his face fixed on an unseen adversary. The fingers of his left hand dig into the earth as he steadies himself for action. His other hand firmly grasps a large knife. The studied pause of his tensed body imparts an intense quality of cunning and intelligence to his physical prowess. 

Vengeance is as impressive and novel a representation of a black person as any made in the 19th century. As is so often the case, however, its maker is little-known today. He was Victor Van Hove, a Belgian sculptor and painter trained in a classical academy in Brussels before moving to the great art center of Paris to begin his career.

The life-size work, made of plaster and painted black, served as a companion piece for another remarkable creation of the artist, a representation of the same man lying on the ground, seemingly unconscious after a severe beating. The latter figure was fashioned by 1854, when it was publicly exhibited in Belgium. The next year it was selected for display at the inaugural Exposition Universelle in Paris, a venue of incomparable importance. The piece garnered immediate recognition for the young artist, who came away with one of the top prizes. A visitor to the exhibition of 1855 disclosed that the figure had been assiduously formed from a living model, the artist describing precisely what he saw.

Less is known of the origins of Vengeance, but the work certainly existed by 1859, when both plaster originals were cast in bronze. Clearly created in response to the figure of the beaten man, the image of the rising slave is linked to it by an implicit sense of narrative. The two works span the great existential gulf between abject helplessness and determined self-empowerment.

A broader understanding of the figure of Vengeance emerges from a consideration of its place within the political and cultural environment of mid-19th-century Europe. Historically, the works fall within the period just after France’s abolition of slavery in its overseas colonies. There could be a reference here to this event, by way perhaps of expiating aesthetically the events of a shameful past. Slavery elsewhere, however, notably in the United States, had not yet ended. It may well be to a further call to action that Van Hove is responding.

When the figure of the beaten man was first exhibited, a parenthetical reference was made to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. The book had become wildly popular not only in the United States but also in Europe. Van Hove cannot have failed to notice the intense interest it stirred among his contemporaries in the fate of slaves in the American South.

Stowe was criticized by some for her evocation of Tom as the helpless victim of a cruel master. As if in response to such remarks, she soon followed with another book about slavery featuring blacks of a much more militant, self-empowered type. Dred, a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp was published in 1856, followed quickly by multiple translations into other languages, including French.

If not directly derived from Stowe, Van Hove’s figures embody the same contrasting conceptions of black slaves found in these two books. In the growing tensions over slavery in the United States, the high art of Europe was beginning to grasp the enormity of the crisis overseas, and to posit in a powerfully symbolic form its eventual resolution through emancipation.