Antebellum Era – Summary from “African-American Art” by Sharon F. Patton

During the time of the Antebellum Era, people often held the theme of “Manifest Destiny”. People were continually looking to European standards when it came to art as well as putting a piece of themselves in their work. At this time, many black people were freed, but some had to escape. There were rebellions that likely led to some of those escapes, and one rebellion in 1822 was led by a man named Denmark Vesey, in South Carolina. In the mid 1800’s was when the most people escaped slavery. There were enough freedmen that people who did escape could find refuge in African-American communities, and the Underground Railroad was often a place that led them there. Most of the freedmen traveled elsewhere, so as to find some source of income and a place to truly call home. Those that relocated, did so because the economy and treatment by whites alienated them and prevented them from making a decent living. Around the same time, organizations like the American Anti-Slavery and some churches fought to abolish slavery. One of the most prominent abolitionists was Fredrick Douglas, and they all eventually saw that they had to push harder.


African/African-American slaves were most responsible with producing art. Master artisans commonly had both black and white slaves work for them to make their products because of scarce labor, diversification of goods, and high cost of goods. Though they had to produce things that whites would more like to have, there were often little details that were used that would signify a part of their own culture. Things that one might not even think twice about, had some kind of special meaning in African culture. In 1863, slavery was abolished and everyone was demanded to free their slaves. Freed blacks were only able to own so much, and the competition with those who had been freed before 1863 made it quite difficult to sell their work. Travel was restricted in some ways, so it wasn’t very easy to go somewhere else and make a living. As a result to all of these obstacles, hundreds of African-American artisans died.

Architecture was commonly created by both freed and enslaved African Americans. Although many did not have formal training in their craft, most had already apprenticed for European and European American architects. Some of the known designers and builders of modest town homes in New Orleans were Louis Nelson Fouche, Laurent Ursain Guesnon, William Kincaide, and Jean-Louis Dolliole. The building styles made in New Orleans during that time were French creole cottages and an African-Caribbean style commonly known as a “shotgun house”. French creole cottages were known for their large galleries, broad spreading rooflines, gallery roofs that were supported by light wooden columns, the main rooms being higher up and sometimes even up a whole story, construction use of heavy timber combined with an infill of brick or a mixture of mud, moss and animal hair called “bousillage”, multiple French doors, and French wraparound mantels. Some of these features might not be included if the building were smaller, but much of it was the same. African-Caribbean “shotgun” houses are long and narrow, with a gable-ended entrance, one room wide, and two or three rooms deep. This type of house was dubbed a shotgun house because a person could fire a shotgun through the front door and the shot would exit out the back without ever touching a wall. The origin of the term “shotgun house” is unknown, but coincidentally, can be altered to “togun”, which is the African Yoruba word for “house”.  Some African Americans were allowed to build their own houses, but most of the time the planters refused to allow any kind of African links to be on their land. By the mid-1800’s, African style houses such as wattle-and-daub (building technique using interwoven sticks and twigs covered in mud or clay), wood fiber, and cob-walls (building with materials like subsoil, water, some sort of fibrous organic material {usually straw}, and sometimes lime) were rare.

Harriet Powers, who was a former slave, had put her spiritual connection with Christianity in her work. She created what are referred to as “narrative quilts”, which are meant to tell a story of some sort. One quilt, called the Bible Quilt (1886), had 11 patches of “scenarios” on them, all of which reference the Old and the New Testament. In the first patch, it shows Adam and what appears to be an angel or perhaps even God, and they are surrounded by animals. The second Bible Quilt (1892) shows Ada, Eve, the white clothed figure, and the animals. And on it goes with stories from the Bible depicted on this quilt. A white woman named Jennie Smith bought it from Harriet in 1891 because Harriet was struggling financially. Harriet also wanted to ensure she could come see her work from time to time. The second Bible quilt was made with materials provided by wives of Atlanta University professors, who likely had seen her first quilt at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Her work was in a completely different building due to her status as a black woman. Most of the 15 patches or “scenes” were actually pulled from the Old Testament. These stories on her quilt symbolized the changes when going from slave to freed person. Powers’ quilts reference and reflect her culture, genealogy, and biblical stories.

The first African American sculptor was a woman named Edmonia M. Lewis. She would later go on to become nationally and internationally known for her art. Lewis learned a lot from a neoclassical portrait sculptor named Edmund Brackett. Later, she opened her own studio and soon after released two portraits of known African Americans. One of those portraits was called Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and she sold more than one-hundred plaster replicas of the busts. One really fascinating sculpture she made was called Forever Free, made in Rome in 1867, which depicted a man and woman with chains, both looking upward, with the woman kneeling, almost looking as if they are thanking God. The piece was done shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation. What was really interesting about the work done by Lewis was that she catered to the interests of both black and white people, with the way that she made the figures appear to have “European features”, but actually depicted black individuals from the Bible, or in history, like Cleopatra in her Death of Cleopatra sculpture. That sculpture was very different from most other Cleopatra pieces artists had done. Most people would show Cleopatra toying with the idea of suicide, and Lewis actually shows the aftermath, and not a pretty one. She is exposed, and typically it was men who made paintings and sculptures of women in the nude, so this was very risky. As well-known as Lewis became, she struggled to make money throughout her career. The Death of Cleopatra was her last known major work.


A major African American fine artist named Edward Mitchell Bannister was known for his landscape paintings. He was self-taught, and began his career in Boston, Massachusetts. He even appeared in the Liberator three times, and also did portrait photography. One of his most popular portraits was called Newspaper Boy, which brought to life a bit of industrious urban life of the African American middle class. He was praised for this portrait and featured in an exhibit at the Providence Art Club. He also won a medal and multiple awards, including a national award, for this painting. His most renowned paintings, called Under the Oaks, was exhibited at the Massachusetts Centennial Art Exhibition at the Boston Art Club.


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