(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.
In a scene scarcely imaginable if not for its all-too-common occurrence in reality, an incident of the 19th-century slave trade is here presented with unflinching detail. The large-scale format of the painting, more than 7 feet wide, brings the viewer uncomfortably close to one of the true atrocities wrought by European colonial expansion. We are witness to a rendezvous of slave traders on the west coast of Africa, a key point of exchange that sent millions of the continent's population into bondage on foreign shores.
This canvas was painted by François-Auguste Biard, a French artist whose work runs the gamut from this and other horrifying scenes of slavery to melodramatic views of polar exploration and humorous takes on the Parisian middle class. It seems not to depict an eyewitness experience but instead presents an indictment of the slave trade composed of many carefully arranged elements. The canvas is yet imbued with a pervasive sense of decadence and apathy, of men corrupted by the routine infliction of the greatest kind of cruelty on their fellow human beings.
The crowded scene comprises a veritable catalog of the abuses of the slave trade. In the right background, native slave traders drive along coffles of captive Africans from the interior, to be examined, branded and crowded onto boats for transfer to a large slave ship in the harbor.
The actual sale of the slaves takes place in the center of the picture. A white man, his hand resting on the chest of a prostrate slave, haggles over his worth with four armed Africans as his companion examines the slave's mouth. With his other hand this man disturbs the trancelike state of the well-dressed record keeper lounging at the right, his ledger and quill pen lying beside him.
On the left the scene becomes even more nightmarish. The relative calm of the opposite side is replaced with the frenzied preparation of the slaves for transport. Beside the central group, a just-purchased young woman is branded by one sailor while another waits with a set of neck irons. In the background, black slavers drive their cargo into small sailing boats in a scene recalling the expulsion of damned souls to hell in Dante's Inferno.
The monumental canvas was exhibited in the summer of 1840 at the Royal Academy in London. It was declared by the author William Makepeace Thackeray to be "the best, most striking, most pathetic lecture against the [slave] trade that ever was delivered."
The painting appeared at a propitious time for the abolitionist cause in Britain. Its potent condemnation of slavery coincided with the first meeting of the World Anti-Slavery Convention. A major victory against the practice had been won in 1834, when its abolition in the British Empire took effect by decree of Parliament. This milestone in the struggle for human rights spurred the efforts of reformers to end the institution of slavery in all remaining places.
A motivating force behind the convention was Thomas Fowell Buxton, the successor of William Wilberforce for anti-slavery legislation in Parliament. Before the meeting was over, its delegates had bought Biard's painting and presented it to Buxton as a token of their esteem. Their choice was especially appropriate, given that in the previous year Buxton had advocated the signing of treaties between Britain and African leaders to abolish the slave trade. Four years later the image was circulated in the form of a high-quality engraving. A later edition of 1853 was dedicated to "the Admirers of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's popular Work of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' "
Modern critics have responded to the painting with a variety of fascinating insights of their own, consistent with the concerns of a new age. Most recently, the British art community has carried the re-examination of the painting forward, this time including significant black voices. In his digitally based work Unrecorded, Keith Piper employs the black bodies in Biard's painting as an indictment of the British material culture and global dominance made possible by the exploitation of slavery.
In his film The Attendant, on the other hand, Isaac Julien imagines the painting coming to life as a sadomasochistic fantasy involving white and black men alternately beating each other. In each case the original anti-slavery intention of the painting is used as a touchstone for the exploration of the lasting effects of slavery on Diasporic identity.
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.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.