A Glance at Antebellum Black Southern Life

Image of the Week: A 19th-century painting of a dance attended by "all the well-known coloured people in the place" tells a rare story.

Christian Friedrich Mayr, Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, 1838, oil on canvas. North Carolina Museum of Art.
Christian Friedrich Mayr, Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, 1838, oil on canvas. North Carolina Museum of Art.

(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.

Within the plain, candlelit space of a large, open-raftered kitchen, a convivial gathering of well-dressed black men and women enjoy an evening dance. The rather large, finished painting offers a privileged glance at African-American life rarely seen in antebellum American art.

It was made by Christian Friedrich Mayr, an academically trained artist from Germany who immigrated to the United States in 1833. After stays in New York and Boston, he lived and worked in South Carolina for several years. There he painted portraits of the local gentry, a steady income supplemented by charming vignettes of everyday upper-class Southern life. During this period, probably in pursuit of commissions, he traveled to White Sulphur Springs, a fashionable resort frequented by the Southern aristocracy located in the Allegheny foothills of Virginia (now West Virginia). Generally considered to have been been done for his own amusement, this unique record of black society seems to have remained with the artist until his death in 1851.

The scene is dominated by a dancing couple dressed in white. Stationed below a simple chandelier, the woman lifts her skirts to perform a kind of curtsied step, while her partner wheels about her, his arms held out from his side. The couple sets up a dominant rhythm that ripples throughout the room. To the right, musicians play a flute, fiddle and cello. In the center background, two rows of figures observe the dancers before them. On either side, other scenarios play out. A couple stands together at the right, while on the opposite side a man seems to dally with a pink-clad woman. Another man seated nearby points to her while he engages the attention of the viewer. 

When the work was displayed in the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York in 1845, it was accompanied by a now-lost painting by Mayr of another dance in the same room: Juba in the Kitchen. Originating in West Africa, the dancing style known as juba was performed by slaves on plantations in the Southern United States during the antebellum period. Its percussive, slapping hand and body rhythms would have made an interesting contrast with the more assimilated dance moves seen in the surviving painting.

The men and women in Mayr’s scene are members of the resort’s large staff of waiters, porters, cooks and musicians. Modern interpretations of the painting have claimed that it represents a wedding, supposedly indicated by the white clothing of the prominent dancing couple. Others feel that we are looking at a less specific occasion, an ordinary ball held to entertain the staff of the resort.

A useful insight into the social context of the painting is provided by Frederick Marryat, an English sea captain and traveler who made Mayr’s acquaintance while staying at the resort in August 1838. In his published account of his journeys, Diary in America, he describes the work as a “kitchen-dance” attended by “all the well-known coloured people in the place.” Given the location of the resort in a slave state and its patronage by a predominantly Southern land-owning clientele, his reference to blacks at White Sulphur Springs invites speculation about the nature of their servitude.

Most visitors of means brought along a full complement of servants, both slave and free. The same situation applied to the resort itself, which was supplied with workers by slave brokers from Richmond. At one point the human assets of White Sulphur Springs — that is, slaves in its service — were valued at more than half that of the establishment itself.

Another guest enthuses over the ideal situation enjoyed by these workers. She refers to this “corps of subordinates” as slaves, and claims that they were treated kindly. In the context of their presence at White Sulphur Springs, it is impossible to distinguish slave from free in the painting, since any slave directly serving the clientele would have been dressed in the same fashion as the free black employees.