Art for the Blind: Listening to Paintings

A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves Artist: Eastman Johnson Year: 1862

A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves
Artist: Eastman Johnson
Year: 1862


Eastman Johnson bonus paintings:

Negro Life in the South

Negro Life in the South

Eastman Johnson Tutt'Art@ (13)

Books I’ve Known And Loved

IMG_0001Of two minds. It’s how we live without crumbling into tears of frustration, terror and despair. We play mental games, don’t we? When I say “we” I mean slave owners and slave traders (past and present), black and white, vegetarians and trophy hunters.

Abraham Lincoln was just like the rest of us until he was sainted by assassination. Of two minds, he wrestled with slavery. Ambition isn’t always a bad thing for it gets a person out of their easy chair. It forces a person to declare something, to speak up–maybe the words and the ideas aren’t perfectly crystallized yet. Maybe a consensus hasn’t formed in the popular mind, but an ambitious person with moral qualms takes up the challenge knowing that even if he stumbles it’s better than sitting on the couch eating popcorn.

Better. Now there’s a word. It hardly means anything anymore. I’m surprised it’s not a banned word in public schools for it hints at meritocracy and superiority. And here is the mental game again: let’s pretend somethings aren’t painful. Let’s pretend that if we don’t like something it doesn’t exist.

Except for some outspoken and at times incredibly naive and hypocritical abolitionists most people in the North just preferred not knowing too much about the ins and outs of slavery. While most opposed it, it wasn’t their problem. Some may have read a few horror stories and congratulated themselves for being open enough and courageous enough to read the stories in their entirety.

I imagine if there was Facebook back in the day animal stories would go viral, celebrities would organize campaigns to save the Cecils in faraway lands. But would they allow themselves to watch an entire Planned Parenthood video? Would they watch a slave being whipped or beaten or raped? Would they pretend that slavery was like a clinical doctor’s office–clean and pain-free?

Or would they wrestle as Lincoln did with their own prejudices, fears and ignorance? Today in our tolerant and polite society how many of us are willing to be called vicious and mocking names for our beliefs? Let’s be honest with ourselves. How many of us would be willing to die for our beliefs or even be shunned for our beliefs? How many of us take the time to study what we think we already know because a talking head on TV or a blog told us it was so?

When I say “we” here I mean ME. In Africa the people wonder why we care more for an animal that they understand eats people than we do people. Our president chides African nations (in a  condescending way I find offensive) for selling albino body parts for rituals. Okay. I’m with him on that, but he’s of two minds isn’t he? There’s a big body parts controversy right here in the states.

When I felt the child I was told I had to abort or I’d die move inside me and when I saw the ultrasound they had to take before the operation I was of one mind: SAVE ME. I understand the fear, despair and embarrassment of believing the lie of exploding populations and a  life made easier without another baby to feed. I was poor and of an environmental mindset.

That baby haunts me still because I didn’t want her even before the health crisis. I want her now. (And yes it was most definitely a baby. I saw it and felt it).

I may lose my limited readership taking a stand here, but It’s impossible after watching bureaucrats chowing down lunch while callously discussing harvesting baby organs for thoughts not to crystallize. My heart had been wavering this summer about the foster care/adoption classes I took this spring. My life is peaceful and good here on the farm, but how can I not open my life up to the many families in crisis? How can I stay of two minds?

Some of you may wonder what this has to do with one of the best books ever written about antebellum America. This book requires an expansion of the mind. This book is an exercise. Yes, it’s thoroughly readable and full of anecdotes, but it’s more. It’s a study of the American mind and soul in all its wonderful and horrible complexity. David M. Potter spares no one, but he’s the rare soul who captures the difficulty of coming to one mind about things. He understands (and loves?) people.

Lincoln was an American man. Not a perfect man, but he took a stand and a chance. Here’s what Potter says about him:

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis

Journalists Lie?

Surely you can trust this face . . .

Surely you can trust this face . . .

Propaganda in the media is not a new thing. Bleeding Kansas. 1850’s. We like the word bleeding, don’t we? The unfolding drama of free settlers armed to the teeth by Eastern preachers versus tobacco chewing ruffians with the Slavocracy behind them. Good vs Evil on a bloody field. But not so quick.

People rushed to Kansas for the LAND. They may have taken their guns (and those of the preachers’) but hell, everyone took guns into the wilderness. And what about those ruffians? Maybe some did chew tobacco but is that a crime? Digging a little deeper one finds the occasional fanatic but common sense would have it that most people went about their business for personal gain.  In Kansas the real fight was over property claims and government jobs.

The Northern abolitionist papers knew this but they didn’t mind muddying the waters for their cause (since their cause was justified). What’s a little exaggeration and deceit?

Let’s take the “sack” of Lawrence, Kansas. Okay, it’s a little complicated here. This sacking was very minor as sacks go. The Southern ruffian side and the Free Soil side squabbled over capitols and such. They had mini-fights that went back and forth (still mostly about power and property with maybe a sheen of the slavery issue). So the ruffian side comes into town there’s a bit of property damage and very little injury to humans. Here’s the headline from The New York Tribune : “Startling News from Kansas–The War Actually Begun–Triumph of the Border Ruffians–Lawrence in Ruins–Several Persons Slaughtered–Freedom Bloodily Subdued.”*

A few days later all the New York papers made mention in small type somewhere that reports had been greatly exaggerated and “scarcely” anyone had been hurt. Imagine you’re reading the paper and imagining this:

Rape of the Sabine Women

Rape of the Sabine Women

And then there’s the story of John Brown. Before Harper’s Ferry there was Pottawatomie. Kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? Can we all be honest here? The photographs of John Brown give some insight into his character (maybe a little unhinged?).

Doesn't he kind of look like a vampire?

Doesn’t he kind of look like a vampire?

John Brown is frustrated at the moderate Free Soil folks in Kansas. He joins up with one of the many local militia groups “The Pottawatomie Rifles” and heads to Lawrence only to hear that Lawrence has been “sacked.”

The following night he takes his sons and a few other men on a killing spree. Here we don’t have to imagine. There were witnesses who testified. The killers dragged prominent Pro-south men from their beds ( in front of their wives and children) and systematically sacked (or I should slaughtered) them. With sharpened broadswords they hacked their heads until their skulls split and John Brown shot one to make sure he was dead.Then for fun they stole some horses.

Okay, so after the first hacking I’m pretty sure this group of men were sickos. I can sort of understand a passion killing, but to hack  one  person then another and another before traveling to yet another man’s house for some more hacking is beyond the beyonds to me. Not so for the eastern newspapers. The abolitionists couldn’t have it. No sickos on our side, thank you very much. They whitewashed the whole deal. Eventually John Brown became a hero–even songs were written in his honor.

So I ask you is it okay to fudge the truth for a good cause?

*From  The Impending Crisis by David Potter

3-D Beauty in a Flat Screen World

The nobility of men lost in a sea of toys.  courtesy Pinterest

The nobility of men lost in a sea of toys.
courtesy Pinterest

Imagine spending 15 years on a work that people see in passing, can touch if they want to, but hardly notice. Plastic Barbie dolls and Star Wars figurines, Pier One trinkets and Walmart cement garden gnomes are hardly capable of producing the emotions and awe once felt by viewers of  public sculpture. But can you blame us modern consumers? Can we really turn to modern abstract and often ugly sculpture with the same sense of wonder and optimism as the men and women living in the “American Renaissance”?

Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox

Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox

Here’s Augustus Saint Gaudens working. Kenyon Cox, another artist looks on. How easy on the eyes this portrait, lovingly rendered, is. Yet Augustus Saint Gaudens was a sculptor and in a world of flat screens and paper books a sculptor’s work looks dull.

My husband and I visited a local ironworks art weekend crowded with people trying to be different, shocking and mysterious. What lacked was beauty and heart. (and art). My husband does not fancy himself a sculptor, but the house he built for our ducks has integrity and a loveliness that springs from something deeper than wanting to be cool.

Augustus didn’t come from wealth. His father recognized an artistic sensibility in his son and apprenticed him to a cameo maker. Later he took classes at Cooper Union and went to Paris where one day he spotted a young fellow American art student. Maybe he whispered a sweet nothing, but she could not hear him.  Augusta Fisher Homer was deaf but not blind to the charms of a young, sensitive and ultimately extremely generous man. They fell in love and married.

Atop Madison Square Garden. courtesy

Atop Madison Square Garden. courtesy

Public men paid for beauty back then. This was when people thought art was interchangeable with beauty. Pompous, greedy men some of them were but these materialist businessmen  still commissioned a Diana for everyone to admire or a William Tecumseh Sherman (before modern and often sloppy scholarship made him such a villain). What do modern magnates do, I wonder? Maybe some quietly do great things, but I long for public beauty not abstraction and Piss Christ.

If you’ve ever gone to the MET in New York you notice in the Greek Art galleries a hush almost as if people know they should truly love the beauty so unlike what they see just outside on the busy street. It’s difficult to sit with these sculptures because we’ve become so unused to sublime beauty. Where’s the color? Where’s the stuff that makes our blood boil? Maybe these quiet sculptures shame us when they remind us how easily our tastes are satisfied with McDonalds happy meal sculptures of the girl from FROZEN.

shermanHo hum I’ve often felt passing one of the greatest American equestrian sculptures ever. Yes, Sherman helped win a war. Now we debate motives and hate them for their lack of purity. But who are we? Lost in a modern world of cynicism and inertia. Happy to point fingers–you’re racist! sexist! elitist! Determined to view the pit and drag it into every conversation and every art work.

Summer painted at the artist colony founded by Saint Gaudens by Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Summer painted at the artist colony founded by Saint Gaudens by
Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Augustus Saint-Gaudens in his naivete may have thought the men who commissioned his work were doing a fair-to-middling job with the country. I don’t know but Louis Auchincloss had this to say about the men and women of the late 19th century and Augustus Saint Gaudens in particular: “Yet when I turn back to Saint-Gaudens’s work, including the portrait bas-reliefs–those wonderful, grave, reflective men, women and children, so subtly conceived and so exquisitely rendered–I have a sense that the American Renaissance may have been a better time in which to live than ours. Its people seem so serious, so high-minded. They seem so determined to make a better and more beautiful world, so concerned with order and dignity. I envy their apparent tranquility. I wish I could share their sense of purpose and progress.”

Sex in a Debtors’ Prison

I'm so in the mood for sex right now.

I’m so in the mood for sex right now.

Once upon a time (in 1748) a man named John Cleland sat in a lonely debtors’ prison in England. Day after dreary day he sat thinking of sex. He couldn’t help himself. Debtors’ prison was god-awfully dull.

We don’t know for sure if John ever pleasured himself, but according to Dr. William Acton anyone who did that sort of thing “cannot look anyone in the face, and becomes careless in dress and uncleanly in person. His intellect has become sluggish and enfeebled, and if his habits are persisted in, he may end in becoming a driveling idiot.” *

(I’m wondering here at the very sloppily dressed men I see these days)

Back to John. He hadn’t become quite the idiot yet, so he picked up pen and paper and wrote the first English prose erotic novel about a young virgin girl gone wild (through no real fault of her own). Poor Fanny is sent to live with a woman she believes to be rich. Turns out she’s pimping out girls. When the woman finds that Fanny is a virgin the hijinks begin. Despite everyone being against the book, it was passed around and sent overseas to puritanical America and passed round still more (mostly amongst young men behind barns and carriage houses).

It was also illustrated–rather poorly, but who cared? Not the young lads laughing behind the barn.

Illustration by Édouard-Henri Avril.

Illustration by Édouard-Henri Avril.

A sampling of John’s work:

“But what was yet more surprising, the owner of this natural curiosity, through the want of occasions in the strictness of his home-breeding, and the little time he had been in town not having afforded him one, was hitherto an absolute stranger, in practice at least, to the use of all that manhood he was so nobly stock’d with; and it now fell to my lot to stand his first trial of it, if I could resolve to run the risks of its disproportion to that tender part of me, which such an oversiz’d machine was very fit to lay in ruins.” Wikipedia

For the more erudite there was the other best-selling secret book: Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Since Aristotle wrote about animals having sex it was assumed he was an expert lover. The boys behind the carriage houses ate it up.

By the 1850’s the rules of sex were changing in America. It was assumed up until then that young people would have sex out of wedlock.  Not that premarital sex wasn’t frowned upon but it was tolerated and arrangements were made for the protection of children (not by any means were all the children protected).

Maybe it was the sight of so many bastards around sad and lonely without  their fathers that pushed society in the Victorian direction. The new moral code prescribed young men to WAIT. To CONTROL themselves. Yes, indeed. Boys in the North were expected to follow the new rules. The young Northern girls were to help them by being morally superior.

Southern young men were ridiculed for being virgins, especially in the small farming communities. And there was to be no help from the girls as they were seen as morally weaker and easily led by the dashing boys who read Fanny Hill and Aristotle behind the barn.

Of course, all boys were told (by other boys) that saving a good girl’s virtue was the right thing to do. Pleasuring oneself led to idiocy, so . . . there were the bad girls. In the North they were the immigrant ones. In the South, they were the slaves.

Back to the debtors’ prison and poor John only dreaming about all he could be getting up on the outside. John Celand was no idiot after all. He published Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and became a secret hero to boys through many printings and controversies.

I wonder if we aren’t set for a swing back even today. Will there be a sudden awakening to the many fatherless children of our times and its cost upon society (not to mention the sadness of being a child without a father)? Will sex and porn be sent back to the private places? Yes, there will always be books and laughter behind the barns, and there are only fairy tales about a virginal past, but maybe discretion would be nice for a change.

*Love, Sex and Marriage In The Civil War by Charles A. Mills

How The Civil War Changed The World

A family affair: infantry near Washington

A family affair: infantry near Washington

“Even while the Civil War raged, slaves in Cuba could be heard singing, “Avanza, Lincoln, avanza! Tu eres nuestra esperanza!” (Onward, Lincoln, Onward! You are our hope!) – as if they knew, even before the soldiers fighting the war far to the North and long before most politicians understood, that the war in America would change their lives, and the world.

The secession crisis of 1860-1861 threatened to be a major setback to the world antislavery movement, and it imperiled the whole experiment in democracy. If slavery was allowed to exist, and if the world’s leading democracy could fall apart over the issue, what hope did freedom have?” Don Doyle New York Times


Even When It Wasn’t About Slavery, It Was About Slavery

courtesy Library of Congress

courtesy Library of Congress

I often hear people say that the Civil War in the US wasn’t about slavery (you may wonder where I am to often hear people go on about slavery), but the more I read history the harder it is to believe. Take the transcontinental railroad, for instance. One of the reasons it took so long in getting started is that everyone (most everyone) had settled on the idea that the federal government should help pay for it. Problem was that the slave state politicians wanted the route through slave country which meant purchasing land from Mexico (would this land be free or slave?). The free state politicians knew their anti-slavery constituents wouldn’t go for that. Everyone was SO TIRED of fighting over slavery every day in Washington for years! So the railroad stood still.

And then there was this sticky situation in Cuba . . . there was a time when Manifest Destiny wasn’t tinged with corruption. It was a brief time, yet most Americans supported the idea of spreading liberty . . . enter the slave states. Some (not all) saw Central and South America as the last beacon of hope for keeping slavery alive. Spain controlled Cuba and Cuba had slaves.

Filibuster William Walker launched several expeditions into Latin America. For a time he ruled Nicaragua, although he was eventually forced to return to the United States. In 1860, he was captured and executed in Honduras. Wikipedia

Filibuster William Walker launched several expeditions into Latin America. For a time he ruled Nicaragua, although he was eventually forced to return to the United States. In 1860, he was captured and executed in Honduras. Wikipedia

Back long ago some men (private citizens) took it upon themselves to gain territory for their country. They spent their days organizing grand and semi-grand plans to capture places. The Americans who did this were called FILLIBUSTERERS.

A Venezuelan-born resident of Cuba, Narciso López, who, like some wealthy Cuban slave-owners, was wary of shaky Spanish rule over the island, and thus sought to have it annexed by the United States in order to ensure slavery’s preservation in Cuba. Cuban property owners were concerned that Spain would give in to British pressure to abolish slavery in Cuba. López organized several failed expeditions to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule, the last resulting in his capture and execution in Havana in 1851. The American public condemned Spanish actions, especially López’s execution without trial, but U.S. President Millard Fillmore did not issue a denunciation. Public anger against Fillmore’s seemingly lukewarm support for expansion contributed to a Whig defeat in 1852.

In an attempt to mollify the Democratic Party’s staunch proslavery wing, the new President, Franklin Pierce, appointed the proslavery politician Pierre Soulé as Minister to Spain in 1853. However, Soulé did not possess a personality well-suited to tactful diplomacy. During his appointment, Soulé disregarded his instructions to preserve Spanish sovereignty and delivered an unauthorized ultimatum to the Spanish Government regarding a seized U.S. merchant ship. Soulé also wounded the French Ambassador in a duel and began to associate with Spanish revolutionaries planning to overthrow the government. In 1854, Soulé met with other U.S. Ministers to draft a document known as the Ostend Manifesto, which outlined U.S. reasons for attempting to purchase Cuba from Spain. Once the documents were publicly released, they proved embarrassing for the Pierce Administration, and U.S. Secretary of State William Marcy implied that Soulé had instigated the meeting. In the meantime, the Spanish Government began to take countermeasures against U.S. interest in Cuba. The Spanish Minister to the United States, Angel Calderón de la Barca, gathered intelligence on planned filibustering expeditions to Cuba. In Cuba, officials took steps to free slaves who had arrived on the island after 1835 and planned to organize a free black militia that would oppose any proslavery invaders. Growing antislavery sentiment in the northern United States and Spanish determination to hold on to Cuba eventually forced U.S. leaders to end attempts to acquire the island.” READ MORE

So was slavery the only reason for war? We could say there were other contributing factors but behind most of them was the country’s wrestling with this core issue. If people took slavery lightly or didn’t find the institution morally repugnant the politicians may not have had so many long and heated battles in the 1850’s.

Manhood: He Did Not Need to Advertise It

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer

Sam Evans was that sort of great man noticed in his small circles and forgotten by history.  While others in his regiment fell out with sore feet and heads Sam marched on. His peers knew him as the man who took new recruits under his wing. Sam spent his spare time putting his blacksmith skills to work, fixing guns for his friends and such. He had integrity and heart and he seriously loved his parents who shaped him into who he was. We get to know him because he and his family were so good at keeping the letters coming and going.

Sam, dutiful eldest son, did not “advertise” his decision to run off and join the army. After watching one brother leave for medical school, another marry and move to Indiana and a third join the Union army, Sam (aged 27) went against his father’s wishes. Sam was a good kid. Without much schooling he’d taken to academics well enough to be given a school to teach. To please his father he learned everything there was to learn about the blacksmith trade like his father, but when his younger brother John Evans came home in  Union blues something in Sam stirred.

As he jostled in his family’s wagon, driving young John back to his regiment, Sam felt no great love for the “darkies.” He was for the Union because his father was for the Union, but something made him send the wagon home with a friend and join the army on the spot.

His mother nearly swooned, his girl looked “the most completely beaten” and his father, well, his father was spitting mad (as Sam suspected he would be). Now the home duties would fall squarely on the shoulders of Amos just coming of age! When before Sam had even seen a bullet he came down with the measles his father sent a pissy letter insinuating Sam was more a burden to the war effort than a help. Sam stood firm and while being nursed to health by a kindly old “darkie” in what was once a bawdy house, he must have smiled as he read the next more contrite letter from home about the entire Evans family suffering under the measles.

The Shirker, Winslow Homer

The Shirker, Winslow Homer

Sam was no shirk.  His first chance at bat, he coolly killed a rebel sneaking around camp before the Battle of Shiloh. When his comrades pulled back at the real fighting a few days later he didn’t notice and kept shooting. He wrote home saying he’d been scratched in the battle only later admitting to being shot. “A little wound does not amount to a hill of beans.”

As word of Sam’s great bravery and upbeat attitude made it home to Father, the older man’s hurt attitude toward his son softened into pride. Father quipped to son that much disease and affliction seemed to attack men in the community aged 18-45 preventing them from joining the brave boys at the front. Sam surely smiled at his father’s subtle compliment.

The higher-ups noticed Sam, too. They plucked him out for an assignment that would test his relationship to Father: How would Sam like to be promoted to lieutenant in a newly formed black regiment? First the hard swallow. Sam took note that his time in the military had changed his once ambivalent feelings toward black people (he’d once called a Republican friend a ‘Negroamus’). His views, like the views of many other white Americans had ‘evolved.’ There was no freedom for anyone if there was no freedom for the slave.

amerikaanse-burgeroorlog-winslow-homer-7Sam assumed at first that the men in his regiment would be inferior soldiers. He assured his father by saying it would be better to sacrifice black soldiers than white. This did not assure his father who acidly wrote that his son had sunk to a new low and hinted he’d be ashamed to tell friends and neighbors. “I’d rather clean out s–t houses . . . than take your position with pay.”

Stung, Sam wrote back, “So willing to accept a degraded position! The fact is you have never marched so far with a heavy load and sore feet as I, and have never noticed so plainly the privileges of a commissioned officer’s . . . Although you have rated me very low I think you are mistaken.” Sam continued even after this to write home.

Father soon wrote back chastened. He feared an officer leading a black regiment would be targeted. Neighbors didn’t shun the family for Sam’s actions. As the mood of the country changed, Sam’s bravery (and the bravery of the black soldiers) was celebrated. Even Father got active.

Once Sam sent a very tanned photo of himself home and quipped he was much suited for the regiment he was in. His men impressed him and did well. His father may have feared for his son’s life, but this is what Sam said: “If a man is a true Christian he can be but a brave man. We should meet danger in the full consciousness of its presence {fear of God} –calmly, steadily unfalteringly . . .one must be really honorable . . .A man with the assurance in his own breast that God has forgiven him is not afraid to die.”

By war’s end Father proudly worked and voted for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution and what of Sam? In 1867 he married a Margaret Shelton and had 8 children. He lived out his days in Ohio, never getting rich or being poor. His father adored him even more and he adored his father.

*****I am indebted to Joseph T. Glatthaar for writing the essay Duty, Country, Race and Party: the Evans family of Ohio published in the book: THE WAR WAS YOU AND ME. This post is a summary of his wonderful work.