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.

As a foreigner supposedly devoid of the American form of racial prejudice, Mayr offers a refreshingly unjaundiced view of his subject. The fact that this fairly complex work was finished when Marryat saw it means that the artist had time to know and sketch his subjects at some length.

Not the least remarkable result of the artist’s power of observation is the great variety of skin color and facial features of those attending the dance. Miscegenation, in fact, represents as revealing a subject of the work as the event itself. It literally embodies the enormously complicated history of race in America as it entered its final stage under slavery. After this, blacks would continue to entertain and serve, but without laboring under the jarring dichotomy of bondage and freedom.

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.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.