Here’s a Rarity: Blacks Performing in a Painting Free of Racist Overtones 

Image of the Week: Thomas Eakins’ The Dancing Lesson captures the intimacy of the African-American experience in post-Civil War America.

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Eakins.Dancing Lesson.1878 copy
Thomas Eakins, The Dancing Lesson (Negro Boy Dancing), 1878. Watercolor on paper, 464 by 575 mm. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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 Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Thomas Eakins was, with Winslow Homer, one of the foremost American artists to come of age artistically after the Civil War. He is characterized as a realist by art historians, and his work reveals a masterful observation of form, light and movement.

During the early years of his career, Eakins’ penetrating gaze was often attracted by the African-American residents of his native city of Philadelphia. Most of the resulting images represent black men in the milieu of white middle-class hunting activities, but in this large watercolor image of music-making, the attention of the artist focuses inward to capture the intimacy of an exclusively black experience.

The scene takes place in a bare interior, furnished only by a simple table, two chairs and a bench. In the foreground a seated young black man plays a banjo. His head inclines toward a much younger youth who follows the rhythm of the instrument, his knees bent and his feet raised on his toes. The gaze of the musician seems fixed on the feet of the dancing boy, who lifts his head to regard the older youth’s face. Between them stands an elderly black man, dressed rather formally in a vest and short jacket. On the chair near him are placed his top hat and cane. The man analyzes the boy’s performance with the practiced scrutiny of a dancing master. Although the name of at least one black person in another of the artist’s works from this period is known, the identities of these figures have not been established.

The impression of a humble domestic interior is actually a convincing fiction, the result of the artist’s exacting, carefully controlled working methods. The scene was arranged within a studio space located on the upper floor of Eakins’ paternal home. The bench and chairs are seen in other works by the artist, and it might be supposed that the professionally made, five-string banjo was also the property of the Eakins family.

Scenes of music-making blacks were the stock in trade of numerous American artists by this point. Rarely if ever had these been executed without a clear tone of condescension or outright racism. So different from these, The Dancing Lesson is also rather atypical of Eakins’ choice of subject matter and locale. It is one of only a few works in his oeuvre devoted entirely to an African-American theme, and unlike most of the others, it takes place in an interior.

The original title of the work, The Negroes, suggests the desire of the artist to broadly characterize an entire people in the form of a single paradigmatic image. Rather than rehearsing for a minstrel show, as some critics have suggested, the figures are engaged in a profoundly formative act of instruction, an almost ritual-like transmission of personal experience from one generation to the next. An amateur musician himself, Eakins could identify with his subjects through their actions. This close coincidence between life and art runs through a great deal of his work, including his other African-American subjects.

This view is reinforced by the diminutive reproduction on the wall at upper left of the well-known photograph, taken in Matthew Brady’s studio, of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad examining a book. Eakins employs the motive to establish a link not only between the newfound freedom granted to blacks by the Great Emancipator, but also to comment on the bond of support and instruction that naturally existed between generations of all races. Through his use of this well-auguring image of Lincoln’s paternal guidance, Eakins also alludes, perhaps inadvertently, to the more troubling issues of class and race engaging the national consciousness in the wake of emancipation.

The musical theme of the picture directly engages the troubled issue of race perception in popular white imagination during the aftermath of the Civil War. The federal policy of Reconstruction, instituted immediately after the Civil War to foster the integration of freed slaves into the national polity, had been formally rescinded just the year before. The failure of the nation to fulfill its obligation to the former slaves followed closely upon the celebration of its centennial. Fortified with an idealistic view of the country's democratic values and beginning to move away from the traumatic experience of the Civil War, white Americans tended to gloss over problematic notions of race with the palliative fiction of the contented slave.

The watercolor was exhibited to general acclaim throughout the United States, both North and South, as well as abroad. Though genuinely expressed, praise for the work was inevitably compromised by the inability of most viewers to appreciate the real merits of the painting. Even Earl Shinn, a noted art critic and close companion of Eakins from their student days in Paris, could not escape the national reluctance to fully accept black citizens into the new order.