Charles Felix Blauvelt, A German Immigrant Inquiring his Way, 1855. Oil on canvas, 91.8 by 73.7 cm.
The North Carolina State Museum of Art, Raleigh, N.C.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Genre painting‚ÄĒthat is, the representation of anecdotal life‚ÄĒoccupied a special place in the hearts of painters, collectors and critics of 19th-century America. A large quotient of sentimentality in genre painting provided a palatable scaffold for the more serious purpose of moral edification, especially when it was hanging on the walls of domestic interiors.

Seeming rather cloying and overly finished today, these carefully focused evocations of the routine of everyday life can also be viewed through a different critical lens, this time exposing quite different, unintended references to the prevailing political and racial agendas of the time.

Charles Blauvelt, the son of a German immigrant in New York City, once enjoyed considerable fame as a painter of casual incidents in his native city. He received his formal training both in Philadelphia and New York. Although he never traveled to Germany, much about his personal style recalls the narrative realism of the famed D√ľsseldorf school, as a perceptive observer pointed out when this picture was exhibited.

The viewer enters the picture through the meticulously rendered, well-lit form of an elderly, white-haired black laborer sawing a rough-hewn log. In the right background, a young white man carries an armload of kindling through a high wooden fence. He has been splitting the wood cut by the black man. As he passes from sight, he looks casually back to observe the momentary interruption of their routine by three passersby.

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The black sawyer stops his work as a bearded white man, himself advanced in years, asks for directions. The exotically attired figure wears a long, red military coat trimmed in black and carries a large bag slung over one shoulder. He holds a long, ornate Bavarian smoking pipe in one hand and gestures to his left with the other. In the shadows behind him, a young man steadies a large bundle on his head. Huddling behind the patriarchal figure, a little girl warily regards the black laborer, perhaps the first person of African descent she has ever seen.

Blauvelt has created an intriguing implied narrative from two groups of very different characters, one just orienting itself to life in a new land, the other long accustomed to its status quo of race and labor. The scene is set in a paved alley behind a row of multistoried brick houses. It may record an actual location in the closely settled, then-middle-class New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village, similar in aspect to the contemporary, and still-surviving, Patchin Place off West 10th Street.

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Whatever the circumstances that brought them to the New World, the just-arrived immigrants are hardly divorced from their roots. By 1855, the year this painting was made, tens of thousands of Germans of all descriptions already lived in New York City, more than in any other city except Vienna and Berlin. The lost man is most likely asking for directions to the extensive, prosperous area in the Lower East Side then known as Little Germany.

The chance meeting of the two men encodes a concise visual evocation of the situation of race and ethnicity in the city of New York just before the beginning of the Civil War. Although the abolition of slavery throughout the North was attained by the early 19th century, stubborn obstacles to a true liberty were posed by the feverish tide of immigration that fueled the advent of the early industrial age. New, passionately pursued ethnic interests exacerbated the continued virulence of racism, an endemic and all-too-familiar experience for African Americans.

The scene is redolent of a society in flux, full of inequities as well as new beginnings. An entire constellation of social and political issues gathers around the two men. Though industriously sawing a log, the black man seems too old for the task. His bent form embodies the compromised experience of African Americans in the mid-19th century. The old laborer reflects the generally subservient role of African Americans in a city increasingly dominated by the machine politics of Tammany Hall.

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Predominantly aligned with the Democratic Party, the German population helped many of its candidates attain high public office. The support of the prominent German business sector led to the election in 1861 of Fernando Wood, who as mayor advocated secession of the city from the Union in order to ensure the continued importation of Southern cotton. Though just arrived, the German immigrant already represents the specter of political intransigence impeding the fortunes of the black residents of the city.

Another indication of the social prejudices prevailing at this time is evidenced by the reaction of critics to the painting. Generally praised for its demonstration of artistic skill, some observers considered the immigrant’s inquiry for directions from a black man to be both misguided and ridiculous because they assumed that the black man was not capable of even this simple degree of social interaction.

The earring worn by the elderly black man obliquely recalls the state of bondage still suffered by thousands of slaves in the South. More particularly, this white-haired figure could have been inspired by Uncle Tom, the central character in the recently published, best-selling novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. He himself cannot be in bondage, however, since all slaves in the state of New York had been freed by 1827. Even so, a new form of oppression levied by powerful city leaders and, in at least one case, by residents themselves had replaced the institution of slavery. In March 1834 a mob of white citizens, enraged by the efforts of certain prominent citizens to abolish slavery, ransacked a free black quarter in Manhattan.

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The meeting of the black laborer and the German immigrant crystallizes the destinies of these two characteristic populations, each facing the vagaries of acceptance by mainstream American society. For Germans, assimilation would come relatively quickly. For African Americans, on the other hand, true incorporation into the fabric of national life is still an ongoing and by no means direct process. 

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.