Artist, Eastman Johnson’s scene of urban slave life, with its layers of story, is set not on a Southern plantation, but in the back streets of the nation’s capital. Painted on the eve of the Civil War, Johnson chose the interior yard behind a tavern in Washington D.C. as his subject, a location not far from his own home. Although slaves were never widely used in D.C., was the author trying to expose the controversy? Johnson’s antislavery sentiments became a documented fact after the start of the Civil War, as he entered the public debate on this subject.
An interesting fact to ponder is that, despite what the artist may have intended, slave owners, abolitionists, and even contemporary critics all interpret(ed) this painting differently. Those opposing slavery as an atrocity to humanity saw it as a symbol of our morally bankrupt and decaying system. Slave owners took a more nostalgic view–pointing out the looks of ‘contentment’ on the black figures’ faces.
This painting might serve as a great way to introduce the question, “What is the story we tell ourselves about the story?” Shekhar Kapur, an Indian film director who is using his art form to explore the divide between rich and poor, recently spoke on this subject at the Ted Conference. The experiences a person has had in the course of life become firmly anchored in their brain and become the foundation for their current and future behaviors. In essence what Shekhar is saying is that our experiences define our expectations. They steer our attention in very specific directions. They determine the valuation we put on our lives through and how we react to our surroundings. Thus, these individually acquired experiences and how we house them internally become our viewing portals. As we look at a scene such as the one Johnson captured in this painting, we must wonder how much of our interpretations are cast by the context and constructs of our lives. What does that say about our lives in general?
Note: In this exhibit hall, there is a wonderful interactive booth for students to use that is related to this painting.