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.
As if playing out a savage drama on a vast stage, a slave family makes a desperate dash for freedom. The fleeing figures move across a shallow stream, emerging from the towering decay of a great swamp. The relatively open stretch of shallow water could suggest approaching safety, were it not for the pursuing dogs and the two slave catchers closing in on the far right in the background.
This overpowering view of nature as the great stage of human destiny was painted by Thomas Moran, an emerging young American landscape artist. Born in England in 1837, he immigrated with his family to the United States while still a boy. Ultimately his fame was to rest on his sublime renderings of the great natural landmarks of the American West.
In 1862 Moran and his brother Edward traveled to Britain to further their artistic education. Toward the end of his stay, he produced this full-scale canvas depicting the desperate flight of a slave family through a vast swampy wasteland meant to represent the Great Dismal Swamp, which extended from southeastern Virginia below Norfolk to the northeastern coastal region of North Carolina. According to information added later to the back of the painting, the anonymous patron of Slave Hunt was an abolitionist, dedicated to the cause of eradicating slavery from one of its last significant strongholds.
Slave Hunt is the first of Moran’s major works to reflect the highly expressive treatment of color by Britain’s premier landscapist, J.M.W. Turner. The older artist himself had memorably dealt with the issue of slavery. In 1840 he exhibited The Slave Ship, a mist- and spray-filled view of a sailing vessel violently tossed by a storm. In the foreground, several limbs of slaves who had been jettisoned overboard as excess cargo appear among the swirls of paint evoking the roiling waves.
In response to Turner’s example, Moran exploited boldly contrasting passages of color to evoke the swamp’s eerie, untamed interior. Though rendered with the same looseness of touch as the tangle of trees and underbrush looming behind them, the slaves emerge from the dense woods to become the psychological focal point of the painting. In formal terms, this effect is largely due to the visual pull of the woman’s bright-red dress.
The timing of the commission is crucial for understanding the relevance of the painting. British textile mills had long been supplied with cotton grown by slave labor on the plantations of the American South. The industry’s distanced but very real support of slavery increasingly divided industrialists against the ardent supporters of world abolition. The struggle between the benefits of material progress and the compromised morality of human labor exploited to achieve it also engaged the attention of a broad number of artists, poets and polemicists.
During the rising tide of sentiment against slavery, the image of the swamp became symbolic of the issue as a whole in midcentury art and literature. The emphasis on nature in its wild state aroused deep sympathy for the plight of the slaves. Slave Hunt literally takes the dire situation of the slave into new territory.
Though the instinct to flee is highly dramatized, the sincerity of the artist is not seriously in doubt. The invocation of sublime nature and sentimentality as the dominant interpretive mode is entirely in keeping with the urgent emotional tone of the subject and its time.
Artists on both sides of the Atlantic created dramatic scenes of slaves hounded by vicious dogs in a forlorn wilderness. In 1842 the American poet William Wadsworth Longfellow published a series of poems on the subject of slavery, including “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp.” The poems are thought to have inspired visual translations of his melodramatic verses made as the cataclysm of war approached.
A less elevated kind of sentimentality pervades the anti-slavery novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The trope of swamp as refuge figures strongly in her best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. It recurs as the main theme of Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, another, less popular, book by Stowe that came out several years later. The appeal of the text to the visual imagination provided rich fodder for the image of the swamp as a dense haven for the slave, and even as a base of operations for the struggle against bondage. In its pages, the old slave Dred rails against slavery deep in the swamp’s vast interior, occasionally emerging to strike out against its perpetrators.
Moran interpreted this subject with the experience of one living in the U.S. just as the hotly contested debate over slavery had broken out into actual hostilities. His view of the escaping slaves was produced in the later months of 1862, just as the nation witnessed its bloodiest single day at the battle of Antietam. Shortly after, President Abraham Lincoln began drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, the epochal document that would spell the beginning of the end for slavery in the U.S.
In fact, Moran had never visited the Great Dismal Swamp. Though he quite likely had seen standard illustrations of its topography, his own hyperbolic rendering of its great expanse hardly resembles reality. Instead, he grafted a generic notion of swampland with the more familiar but no less contrived painterly view of the woodland forest as natural cathedral.
To the pristine beauty of nature is added the unimpeded cycle of creation and decay inherent in the generative force of the cosmos. The same compromise with authenticity, though slight, is revealed by the gold earrings worn by the slave couple. In European art, such ornaments served to conjure the exotic African, depicted either as a liveried servant or a foreign prince.
The actual experience of the Great Dismal Swamp was altogether different from Moran’s imagined version, especially for the thousands of escaped slaves who lived within its interior. Many maroons worked within the interstices between the swamp and commercial development, laboring on canals or crafting cypress shingles for sale to local merchants. On the other hand, the swamp continued to serve as a refuge for those fighting slavery.
Recently the theme of maroonage and the slave family’s predicament has been literally revisited, this time from the point of view of an African-American artist. In his multimedia presentation Sanctuary: The Great Dismal Swamp, Whitfield Lovell re-created the slaves’ occupation of the region. Among the scattered detritus of pistols and submerged cypress shingles, 12 galvanized washtubs set at regular intervals leave a haunting reminder of the swamp’s former inhabitants. From the bottom of the tubs, the faces and bodies of runaway slaves emerge from the brackish water as if from a murky well of collective memory.
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.