Is impartiality unattainable when the eye of an artist reflects their cultural dominance?


Junius Brutus Stearns, Life of Washington - The Farmer, 1853, Lithograph; Museum purchase, 1994.

George Washington surveys his land and property. Strangely central to this image of Washington, the farmer, are the enslaved people who seem content in their labor. Crop in hand, the former president is at ease in the foreground, as are his children at play. There's no hint in this 1853 lithograph that anything is awry with the exploitation of human beings for Washington’s profit. Despite its tonal blacks and grays, the scene is lush. The serenity, the sense of all-is-right-with-the-world, ought to be unnerving. The messaging clearly associates the Black bodies and the products of their work with the abundance of the land itself. They are in their rightful place, serving and subservient. Washington is depicted in complete control of his property. The artist, in complete control of the image, has conveyed the dominance of white supremacy in his time.


Currier & Ives, The Darktown Fire Brigade-All on Their Mettle, 1889, Lithograph; Gift of Dr. Joseph Knapp, 1981.

After the Civil War, many Freedmans’ Towns were established, populated entirely by people of color and self-governing. Here, the artist acquiesces completely to the stereotypes of Black folks in the late 1800’s. The inept, unkempt and chaotic fire brigade struggles to respond in an emergency in mythical Darktown. The ape-like facial expressions and exaggerated physical features are not subtle hints at the perception of Blacks as primitive and unintelligent. The bright color scheme, well-suited for a children’s picture book, reinforces the simple, straightforward messaging. The series of Darktown lithographs were among the best sellers produced by the Currier and Ives company, an American icon. Their attempt at comedy, based in racism and bigotry, reflected the perceptions of middle-class white America who paid willingly to own and display one of these images. The artists, in this case, controlled the image but were in absolute collusion with the patrons (viewers) who compensated them for producing what they wanted and believed.


  • Tuesday - Friday

    10:00AM - 5:00PM


    1:00PM - 5:00PM
  • Join Our E-Newsletter for Monthly Updates