The Met’s Take on Slavery and the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Thomas Anshutz
In The Met’s Civil War Gallery, Left: “Abraham Lincoln: The Man” (2012.14.a,b), Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1884-87. Right: “The Way They Lived” (40.40), Thomas Anschutz, 1879.

There are references to slavery in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing, but most are unspoken. For a number of wealthy Americans families living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose fancy furniture and art is now on display in the American Wing, their means of wealth accumulation was through the institution of slavery. Meaning, families became rich either through the explicit sale of enslaved Africans or used enslaved people as the labor force on their plantations and in their homes. Even if a merchant did not own a plantation, he benefited from slavery. Every sugar cube and every bolt of cotton he sold was made possible by the hands and work of an enslaved person. Although the American Wing does talk about the institution of slavery, Marabou is interested in how it is handled.

The label for Gallery 762 “Civil War and Reconstruction Eras and Legacies” in the American Wing reads,

“American artists of the period rarely pictured the divisive violence and moral discord of this country’s Civil War (1861-65). Yet they still found ways to address the conflict and its lingering effects. As seen in this gallery, Winslow Homer, who was embedded with the Union army as an artist-correspondent, became the leading chronicler of the war and its complicated aftermath, including for the formerly enslaved. In subsequent years, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and other sculptors produced portrait busts and statues the commemorated the war’s heroes and martyrs. In this gallery, representations of these varied subjects–including work by African American artists–illuminate this defining historical event and its collective memories that continue to resonate today.”

The Met explains right away why there are no works depicting explicit warfare wishing the gallery. Ok, but Marabou finds this text evasive and vague. What is meant by “defining historical event”? The “collective memories…of which populations? The objects on display paint a particular view of the Civil War.

John Brown, Thomas Hovenden, abolition
“The Last Moments of John Brown” (97.5), Thomas Hovenden, 1882-4.

The two most recognizable figures in the Civil War gallery are two white men, Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. There are two paintings of John Brown. Depending on when you visit, there may be one or two representations of Abraham Lincoln. A bronze sculpture entitled “The Freedman” by John Quincy Adams Ward in 1863 depicts a formerly enslaved African American, wearing just a loincloth and broken shackles. The painting, “The Way They Lived,” done by Thomas Anschultz in 1879 (you may have seen this used as the cover image of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) features a black woman and her two children working in their garden. For this painting, The Met’s label acknowledges that the tone of Anschultz’s title, “underlines the distance between the presumed white, middle-class viewer and the laboring subject.” Another painting in the gallery, “Untitled (Cracked Watermelon),” was done by Charles Ethan Porter in 1890. Porter was among the first African American artists to exhibit nationally and The Met asserts, “by reclaiming the subject [watermelon] in artistic terms, Porter challenged a contemporary racist trope.” In Marabou’s opinion, this selection of artwork creates an incomplete and soft version of the Civil War experience.

abolition, John Quincy Adams Ward
“The Freedman” (1979.394), John Quincy Adams Ward, 1863.
american art, thomas anshutz, met museum
“The Way They Live” (40.40), Thomas Anshutz, 1879.

Although John Brown and Abraham Lincoln are obviously important players in the abolition of slavery and the Civil War period, a “white savior” mentality can be felt in the space. This is especially the case when the portrayals of African Americans in the same gallery include a semi-nude, recently unshackled man (“The Freedman”) or a woman with her children (“The Way They Lived”) described as living in “impoverished living conditions” per the painting’s label. The agency of enslaved people and free blacks goes unrepresented, unmentioned. Even if The Met doesn’t own paintings or sculptures that depict African Americans other than slave, formerly enslaved, or Union soldier, or lacks art representing well-known black abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass,* gallery and label text should be edited to break up the typical Brown and Lincoln anti-slavery narrative told time and time again. The Civil War gallery is not the only place in the American Wing where the inclusion of black voices and the black perspective is needed to have a more holistic understanding of the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Going back to the fact that a lot of the wealth on display in the American Wing was accumulated due to slavery, Marabou believes this can and should be explained to visitors through gallery text and museum labels. The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Massachusetts has initiated this process of acknowledging connections to slavery within its galleries. Original object labels remain, but are supplemented with labels that explain if the subject of a portrait owned slaves or benefited from slavery. (A Hyperallergic article describes this WAM initiative in length.) Why are the actions taken by WAM important? Despite the numerous objects directly tied to slavery in The American Wing, Marabou sees minimal explicit references to slavery, even in the Civil War gallery. There is a culture of avoidance when it comes to talking about the realities of slavery and its impact. If it is discussed, the severity and reach of the institution is often minimized. From acknowledging if a portrait depicts a former slave owner to explaining that a silver set belonged to a sugar trader, this information will remind and inform visitors of how many people benefited from slavery and that it wasn’t just slave owners and traders that were complicit. Seeing the amount of objects in a museum with some connection to slavery visually quantifies how deeply seeded slavery was in the development and success of the early United States. Some may say that this type of content isn’t meant for an art museum, but for a history museum instead. Marabou argues that true art appreciation goes beyond brushstroke and craftsmanship. To understand who made the object, who bought it, and all the factors that made that object possible (including material sourcing and economics), cultivates greater appreciation and understanding about art’s historical role as indicator of wealth and status.


*The Met does not own any artwork relating to Harriet Tubman. They own 3 works depicting Frederick Douglass and 3 depicting Sojourner Truth. (As of 20 August 2018, according to an online search of The Met’s collection.)

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