“All Men Are Created Equal”
The revolutions of the 18th century secularized and expanded the Christian idea of universal equality. Now there was not only a fundamental equality of all people regardless of condition before God, there was a broader equality of all people regardless of creed before the law. The Christian vision of universal salvation became the new liberal vision of universal enfranchisement.
The truly new and radical aspect of all of these revolutions was the conviction that the human condition could be changed. This sounded the death knell of both monarchy and slavery. The idea that people were born into a hierarchy ordained by God or the gods, and that was immutable, was over. People demanded that the old verities prove their credentials. Expectations rose in ways that were unprecedented. The unquestioned Way of the World was now called into question.
How to find a form language that would adequately express this very new experience?
John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, 1818
John Trumbull fell back upon the old tried and true isocephalic composition to express a new secularized idea of equality in his 1818 painting of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. The heads of most of the signers are all in tidy rows. He tackles that old problem of Dutch painting; how to paint the individuals together with the group. His solution is memorable, though not very dramatic.
Jacques Louis David, a much greater artist, turns the beginning of the French Revolution into a kind of Pentecostal event.
Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Tennis Court, drawing, 1791
An almost religious ecstasy fills the legislators as the members of the Third Estate, who are locked out of their usual meeting place and assemble on the tennis court of the Palace of Versailles. They transform themselves into the National Assembly and vow not to adjourn until they have drafted a new constitution for France. Lightning strikes the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles (that really happened; the oath took place during a violent summer thunderstorm), and Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite enter the room and all hearts like the Holy Spirit. David falls back upon the language of religion to express a new kind of ecstatic transformative experience, one that is political instead of spiritual.
In the foreground, members of the three estates embrace; a priest representing the First Estate, and a nobleman representing the Second Estate, are brought together by a robed lawyer representing the Third Estate. This was not entirely wishful thinking. In its beginning stages, the Revolution had a lot of support from the nobility and the lower clergy.
This picture is a drawing for a proposed painting that was never completed. Most of the men in this picture perished as the Revolution became an ideological bloodbath of competing abstractions.
“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
Ceramic medallion designed and manufactured by Josiah Wedgwood, a founding member of an abolitionist society.
Far from eliminating slavery, early capitalism transformed it in a Faustian bargain. Slave labor now became integral to the global economy by keeping expenses and prices low for a new mass market. It began with the sugar industry in Brazil in the 17th century. The harvesting and refining of sugar was very hot and brutal work. Indentured debtors, usually young people from Western Europe, were the first ones to work in the sugar plantations, and they died like flies from the hard labor, heat, and brutality. Plantation owners decided to use people they considered more “accustomed” to labor in a tropical climate. They began raiding local Indian tribes for a limited supply of slave labor, and then turned their attention to a vast supply of slave labor, Africa. The supply of industrial slaves from Africa to plantations in the Americas became a huge and profitable business in itself. The Africans, like the Indians, and Europeans before them, died like flies from the harsh labor, but the supply of them seemed inexhaustible. Their uncompensated forced labor did indeed keep the global prices of sugar, tobacco, and cotton low for the international markets.
Diagram of a slave ship, circa 1850
Modern slavery flew in the face of both Christian and secular ideas of equality. How could people justify such brutality in the name of profit? Somehow these new slaves had to be seen as less than fully human.
Race is a modern concept. It is rooted in ancient and abiding tribal passions, but the idea of separating people into fixed categories based on physical characteristics and inheritance is modern. Racism begins in a very modern experience, cross-cultural contact. Peoples who did not even suspect each other’s existence now came into regular contact in the global economy. The first reaction was mutual horror and disgust.
detail from a Japanese screen painting showing Portuguese merchants, 16th century
A 16th century Japanese screen painter records the horror of the first encounter with Portuguese merchants and missionaries. The Japanese saw Westerners as ugly crude barbarians with ridiculous clothes, bad manners, and hopelessly obscure religion. Westerners responded in kind seeing the Japanese, and Asians in general, as superstitious and perfidious.
Racism was created out of experiences like these together with modern ideas of nationalism, social Darwinism, and eugenic pseudo-science. Racism was the established orthodoxy of the 19th century and much of the 20th century. Those who differed in color and custom were assumed to be inferior.
"The White Race" from Frye's Complete Geography, 1895
"The Brown Race," from Frye's Complete Geography, 1895
That belief was expressed in the language of science, even in elementary school textbooks, such as the geography textbook my grandmother used.
Belief in the defective humanity of other races made it easier to exploit their labor and take their resources to guarantee the general prosperity of the “civilized.” Somehow their differences were faults that had to be corrected with hard labor and education.
New students at a boarding school for American Indians where children and young people were brought against their will and without their parents' consent, to be assimilated into 19th century American mainstream culture. The stated mission of these schools was to "kill the Indian and save the man," to cure them of their Indian identity (sound vaguely familiar to anyone?)
Second year students at Hampton School in Virginia, a boarding school for American Indians.
There were those very few who stood against racism in the name of equality and humanity. Most of them, like Frederic Douglass, came from the ranks of marginalized peoples. A few came from the dominant peoples.
I have a biologist colleague at the community college where I work who declares that race is a fiction. All humanity is descended from common ancestors in east Africa and is genetically the same. The physical differences between the “races” are so slight as to be meaningless in biological terms. They are more about individuation and regional adaptation than they are about any kind of real distinction. He argues that race is a cultural and historical construct and not a biological reality.
The old religious idea (not exclusive to Christianity, but shared by many faiths) of The Family of Man may be literal reality after all. Some geneticists argue that there may not have been an Adam, but that there was an Eve, and she lived somewhere in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, and we are all her descendents. As the idea of race came in with modernity, it may well eventually die out with advances in science and technology.
There were artists (not very many) who questioned and resisted the racist orthodoxy of the early modern era in their work.
A very ambiguous artist on this score is a pupil of Jacques Louis David, and a favorite artist of Napoleon, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson.
Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, Jean Baptiste Bellay, 1797
In 1797 Girodet painted this striking portrait of Jean Baptiste Bellay, delegate to the Convention of the French Republic from the French Caribbean colony of Saint Dominique. Bellay was born a slave in Senegal, and was a leader in the Haitian slave revolution of 1791. He was the first black delegate to the Convention, and a leader in the cause to abolish the slave trade. The ambivalent feelings of the French revolutionaries come through in Girodet’s portrait.
Bellay leans on a bust of the Abbe Raynal who died the year before. Raynal was a pioneering activist for the abolition of the slave trade. The dead Raynal and the living Bellay look past each other. Girodet poses Bellay in a way that is both relaxed and defiant, in the uniform of a French Revolutionary official. The head is slightly too large. Girodet is fascinated by the strangeness (to him) of the man’s features. In Girodet’s picture, Bellay comes across as slightly threatening and grotesque. The French Revolutionaries were proud of Les Droits de l’Homme inspiring a slave revolt. Many (though not all) believed in the fundamental equality of all races. At the same time, this large exotic presence in their midst made them uncomfortable. Bellay constantly fought off insinuations because of his color and was deeply frustrated by the reluctance and inaction of his colleagues on the issue of slavery.
Race was an even deeper and more central issue in the early United States whose economy was closely bound up with African slavery.
William Sidney Mount, The Power of Music, 1847
In 1847, William Sidney Mount painted a daring picture by the standards of his day titled The Power of Music. Black and white come together (almost) through a common love of music.
The black man remains separated. Mount plays down the physical differences between black and white (in contrast to Girodet’s horrified fascination). Though kept separate, and with a patronizing tone, Mount’s painting is a radical (for the time) declaration of common humanity.
The most radical declarations of common humanity came from the brushes of African American artists.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was Thomas Eakins’ only African American student, and his most successful student. Tanner made a flourishing career in France as a religious painter. Any similar career for an African American would have been impossible in the United States at the time. Tanner's work regularly won prizes at the Salon exhibitions and entered many prominent public and private collections. For a while, Tanner’s fame eclipsed that of his teacher.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
Tanner wanted to use his art to proclaim the dignity of his people in an age that denied it. Tanner frequently took the standard repertoire of racist imagery and turned it inside out. One of those common racist images was of the banjo playing black man. Tanner completely reverses the racism of that image in his painting of The Banjo Lesson. The banjo is an African instrument. Tanner turns this image into a much more moving image of the power of music than Mount’s picture. Here, music is a means of education and the passing on of inheritance from one generation to another.
Perhaps the most moving of all works of art concerned with the struggles against racism is Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, a series of paintings about the mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North between the World Wars. It was one of the great mass migrations of American history, and until recently, was little noted.
Part of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City
African Americans fled the poverty and violence of the South in the years following World War I. Returning African American veterans met a wave of racist violence intended to intimidate them into abandoning their rising expectations in the wake of their service. Industries in northern US cities took advantage of this huge pool of cheap labor by encouraging blacks to leave the South and move north with promises of housing and employment. African Americans arrived to find low wages and poor housing together with legal and de facto segregation in northern cities, but managed to build a new life despite those realities. Lawrence’s paintings are about a common struggle for basic human dignity by ordinary people looking for something better.
Lawrence knew the grand manner of the Italian High Renaissance well, and loved it dearly. For this particular monument, he decided to do the opposite of the Grand Manner. The series is painted in cheap paints on small inexpensive prepared boards. Originally, he carried the whole series from exhibit to exhibit in a cheap suitcase, which he would include in the show. This was a monument created out of available materials and intended to travel; something an itinerant people carry with them. Though formally trained as an artist, he deliberately cultivated a kind of naïve style in these pictures, as though they are the spontaneous expressions of the migrants themselves retelling their experiences.
He kept the forms simple and the colors vivid. Unlike so much melodramatic social realism from the 1930s throughout the world (from Ben Shahn to Otto Dix), Lawrence’s panels have an emotional understatement that makes them all the more dramatically powerful. The forms and colors of each picture carry the drama as much as the action itself.
Racism may no longer be established orthodoxy anymore, but it is still alive and well. It is now a great unmentionable, but it is still here. The experience of racism leaves behind a tangled and difficult legacy.
The artist Martin Puryear is a celebrated and successful artist, but one who is controversial in some circles because of issues surrounding his race. He is African American. His work is very much within the mainstream of late 20th century modernism.
Martin Puryear, Bower, 1980
For that reason, some critics attack his work for not being black enough. Other more purist modern critics attack his work for importing “other issues” of race into what is supposed to be the search for pure and meaningful form.
I will close this essay with Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington, a very moving work that is a simple wooden ladder made out of tree branches that appears to go on forever and ever.
It is deeply critical of Washington’s mixed legacy of accomplishment and accommodation, and at the same time, the Ladder is very tragic. The infinite Ladder expresses poignantly the aspiration, frustration, and futility felt by those who have never been allowed to take their dignity for granted.