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.
A large, tumultuous group of black congregants assembles before a modest clapboard church in Philadelphia. This watercolor rendering is one of 52 views of life along the Eastern Seaboard made by Pavel Petrovich Svinin and a fellow immigrant, the German painter John Lewis Krimmel. A classically trained artist, Svinin had arrived in Philadelphia as assistant to the Russian consul to the U.S. government. During a short residence of only two years, Svinin left a unique record of the African-American experience in the early republic.
This lively demonstration of faith may remind the viewer of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1793 by distinguished activist and preacher the Rev. Richard Allen. But the spirited, spontaneous tone of the preacher in the doorway; the humble nature of the wooden structure behind the tumbling congregants; and the lack of resemblance of the preacher to Allen all distance the association of the group from Allen’s more conventionally ordered church.
In fact, it represents the antithesis of the more elevated spirit of worship of African Americans in the city. Svinin’s text makes special mention of the spiritual call-and-response between preacher and congregation assembled before him within the sanctuary, their voices eventually reaching a “high, monotonous” crescendo. Standing under the choir in the rear of the church, he feared that the whole building might come down around him.
Svinin strolled the streets of Philadelphia seeking characteristic views of its daily life. He often depicted the activities of poor blacks shown in various kinds of service to well-off whites. This scene takes place in what the artist described as an alley. The participants in these acts of individual witness have spilled out from the simple interior of the church, the better to accommodate their own unrestrained form of worship.
Svinin painted the scene in fresh, vibrant tones that accentuate the frenzied activity of the congregants. He recorded an aspect of African-American religion during the period when religious sentiment in the country was transformed by the popular movement known as the Great Enlightenment. For some, the view has been regarded as a satire of black worship, showing as it does an unrestrained group of men and women, many writhing on the ground as though transported by a state of spiritual revelation.
One scholar has even interpreted the scene in erotic terms, insisting that it represents a charismatic religious experience transformed into an orgy of the flesh. As described by Svinin, however, the “skeletal form” of the preacher stands within the doorway as he exhorts his congregation to experience rapturous communion with the divine spirit. Though sometimes described merely as dancing, a leaping man and woman lose themselves in a solitary state of rapture. Between them, others have collapsed, moved to exhaustion by their acts of witness.
Svinin’s residence in the United States coincided propitiously with a seminal moment in the emergence of organized religion among African Americans. Beginning in the late 18th century, blacks in the state of Pennsylvania had achieved freedom from slavery through the compromised process of gradual emancipation. The last major group of slaves had fulfilled the odious terms of their freedom just as Svinin arrived in Philadelphia. Many blacks flocked to the city to seek new opportunities in the workforce. The emergence of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, formally established by Allen in 1816, coincided with a bustling, at times turbulent, experience of African Americans in the city.
Resistance to their presence by white residents drove many blacks from meaningful participation in public life, such as the Fourth of July celebration at Independence Hall, as well as rising discrimination in the marketplace. In other respects, however, the African-American experience made positive strides. By 1805, when the new Bethel church replaced the humble blacksmith’s shop, black street vendors had regained their place in the economy, as shown by watercolors by Svinin and Krimmel of black entrepreneurs operating in the heart of the city.
By the 1820s a more insidious, entrenched degree of prejudice took visual expression, most notoriously in popular prints created by Edward Williams Clay. His “Life in Philadelphia” series presented scathingly rendered vignettes of black middle-class life. Employing grossly caricatured physical types, his condescending approach was underscored by titles offensively phrased in scornful imitation of black popular language. Sadly, this new, overtly racist view of black people was only the beginning, and became a commonplace medium for the reception of African Americans by white society.
Svinin’s vivid record of African-American worship gave the rest of the world a singular view of a cultural difference within the country. His position with the Russian consul lasted only two years before he returned to his homeland. On the way, he published several of his views in Great Britain. Much later, in 1829, in response to the interest of Czar Alexander I in scenes from America, he issued a fuller version with accompanying essays. A print of this watercolor was among the few illustrations included in the volume. Published in Russian, his intriguing account of life in the new land of democracy was soon translated into other languages, including French, though curiously not into English. He later published a study of black American religious music.
Svinin’s more nuanced observations of the African-American experience come as close to visual journalism as could be imagined. Although his own religious upbringing in the Russian Orthodox Church had stressed a formula of ritual absolutely at variance with the spontaneous response to divinity seen here, he was clearly capable of eschewing caricature to more sympathetically record the passing scene during a crucial period in the new nation’s history, just as blacks were creating a new place for themselves within the great experiment of American democracy.
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.