Any discussion of the artwork of slaves in the Americas must acknowledge the difficulty of finding evidence for the artistic practices of displaced peoples who lived under the severe hardship of slavery. The traumas of slavery and displacement necessarily prevented many connections with the arts of the slaves' ancestral homes and certainly prohibited most slaves from any knowledge of the fine art practices of the Americas and Europe. It is indeed remarkable that there is any evidence of artistic practice; yet it is known today that some slaves were able to preserve some African artistic and cultural practices. Though in 1933 Alain Locke (1886–1954) contended, in his work Negro Art: Past and Present, that slavery had cut the cultural roots of transplanted Africans, other scholars have since argued that many traditions did survive in some measure.
Much of the African artistic practice that slaves brought to the Americas will be categorized as craft by some definitions of fine art. Yet the broader postmodern definitions of artistic practice would suggest that these craft practices be considered on an equal footing with European artistic traditions. The discovery of ceramic and other crafted objects, particularly at burial grounds in the South, reveals that some slaves in the Americas continued, probably with difficulty and perhaps in secret, to maintain some of their artistic and ritual practices. Small ceramic face vessels, some dated as late as 1860, found at burial grounds in South Carolina and Georgia, bear a resemblance to Kongo pottery. The vessels, which range in size from 4 to 9 inches high, depict a human face in relief on one side and are usually formed from two different clays, depicting, for example, brown skin and white teeth. According to records from the nineteenth century, the practice of placing pierced or cracked ceramic vessels was observed at slave burial sites, particularly in South Carolina. It is speculated that the face vessels were protective artifacts that reflect an African spiritual practice.
Some traditional African artistic practices were preserved openly because of their value to slaveholders. For example, slaves from the Windward Coast of West Africa continued to create coiled fanning baskets that were used for the winnowing of rice, and they carved wooden mortars and pestles that were used to process the grains. In the case of the fanning basket, it may be suggested that its usefulness in the rice-growing economy of the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia helped to preserve an African basket-weaving tradition. Indeed, present-day African American basket weavers of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, weave a traditional fanning basket that is similar to the baskets of West Africa.
A shortage of skilled artisans, particularly during the colonial period, encouraged the acquisition of other artistic skills among American slaves. Slaves were apprenticed to various craftspeople to learn trades that included printing, engraving, and jewelry-making, and slaveholders profited from the work of skilled enslaved craftspeople. Edward Peterson's History of Rhode Island, published in 1853, suggested that the prominent portraitist Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) received his first drawing lesson from a slave named Neptune Thurston, who worked in a Boston engraving shop. Much of the work of slave apprentices and artisans, including engravings, is undocumented, and their influence is unknown. Nevertheless, though most enslaved artists remain anonymous, a few individuals were able to make a transition from their work as artisans to become successful practicing fine artists, despite obvious obstacles.
Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved artist who was active in the late 1700s, is known primarily from his mention by poet Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), herself a slave in the household of John Wheatley of Boston. Moorhead, a slave of Reverend John Moorhead, was apparently trained by Sarah Moorhead, John's wife, who taught art. Wheatley mentions two paintings by Moorhead: one titled Aurora and another that depicts the legend of Damon and Pythias. When her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, was to be published in London in 1773—financed by Selina Hastings (1707–1791), the Countess of Huntingdon—Wheatley was asked to provide a portrait of herself to appear on the frontispiece. It is widely assumed that the portrait that appears in the book was engraved after a drawing by Scipio Moorhead, though he is not credited. The skillfully rendered portrait depicts the poet in a contemplative pose at her desk. Wheatley's poem "To S.M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works" is a tribute to Moorhead:
How did those prespects [sic] give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Still, wond'rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter's and the poet's fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
(Wheatley, p. 119)
Joshua Johnston (1763–1832), also known as Johnson, a successful portrait painter of his time who worked in Baltimore, Maryland, is listed in the Baltimore city record of 1817 as a "Free Householder of Colour," but scholars suggest that Johnston was born a slave; he arrived from the West Indies before 1790 and had been freed by 1796, when he advertised his services as a portrait painter. He is thus considered the earliest documented African American professional painter. Scholar J. Hall Pleasants (1942) noted that Johnston might have been the slave of either Charles Willson Peale or Peale's nephew Charles Peale Polk, observing the similarity of Johnston's work to that of Polk; though other historians disagree, it is known that several of Johnston's subjects were also painted by Polk. Johnston painted portraits of white families, including many depictions of children, as well as numerous portraits of prominent free blacks of Baltimore. Several of Johnston's portraits survive, including: Sarah Ogden Gustin (c. 1798–1802), now in the National Gallery of Art; Portrait of a Cleric (c. 1805), now in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1810)—identified as Reverend Daniel Coker, a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church—in the American Museum in Bath, England; and James McCormick Family (c. 1805), in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.
Sculptor Eugene Warburg was born in New Orleans in 1826, the son of a German Jewish father, Daniel Warburg, and a Cuban mulatto slave, Marie Rose Blondeau. His father freed him (along with his mother) when he was a child. Eugene, who began his career as a marble cutter, opened a shop in 1849, producing mostly tomb sculptures. He studied in the 1840s with Philippe Garbeille, a French sculptor in New Orleans, who may have encouraged Warburg to pursue further study in Paris. Warburg left in 1853 to study at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, leaving his brother Daniel, whom he had trained, in charge of the New Orleans shop. Most of Eugene Warburg's works were sculptural portraits of political and military figures. In 1855 four of his works were accepted by the Salon de Paris, including Portrait de son excellence, le ministre des États-Unis à Paris, a marble bust of John Young Mason, the U.S. minister to France. Warburg remained in Europe for the rest of his short life (he died in 1859), becoming the first African American expatriate artist.
The antislavery movement was closely connected to the work of black artists, though most of the known artists associated with the movement were free blacks. Abolitionists promoted the work of some artists, and patrons paid for the training of others, such as Patrick Reason, a printmaker and engraver, born in 1816, who produced engravings for the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1845–1911), with a letter of introduction from William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), studied under Edmund Brackett and later achieved international acclaim in Europe. Photographer James Presley Ball, a free black, operated a successful daguerreotype studio and gallery in Cincinnati; in 1855 he published an antislavery pamphlet and mounted daguerreotype exhibitions on the subject. By the mid-nineteenth century, some free black artists, such as Robert Scott Duncanson (1822–1872), Robert Douglass, Jr., and Edward Bannister (1828–1901), were gaining acclaim.
In the mid- and late-nineteenth-century United States, it is certain that former slaves were among the many practicing black artists and artisans. Even during the years of slavery, enslaved artisans had sometimes been able to purchase their freedom by extra labor, beyond that which profited the slaveholder. Others fled possessing a marketable skill, as revealed by newspaper advertisements for the return of runaway slaves who were described as silversmiths, carpenters, and seamstresses, among other trades. Regrettably, most of the names of these artists will remain unknown.
Lewis, Samella, ed. African American Arts and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Pleasants, J. Hall. Joshua Johnston, the First American Negro Portrait Painter. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1942.
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Philadelphia: Reprinted and sold by Joseph Crukshank, 1886.
Astronautics owes much of its existence to the arts. On the one hand, literary works by authors such as Jules Verne (1828-1905) were directly responsible for inspiring the founders of modern spaceflight; on the other hand, artists such as Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986)* made spaceflight seem possible. When Bonestell's space art was first published in the 1940s and early 1950s, spaceflight to most people still belonged in the realm of comic books and pulp fiction. Bonestell, working with such great space scientists as Wernher von Braun, depicted space travel with such vivid reality that it suddenly no longer seemed so fantastic. Emerging as it did when the United States was first taking an interest in astronautics, these paintings went a long way toward encouraging both public and government support.
Space Art Comes of Age
Since Bonestell's time, there have been many other artists who have specialized in space art, though even in the early twenty-first century there are probably fewer than a hundred who work at it full-time. Some have been able to develop specialties within the field. Robert McCall and Pat Rawlings, for example, devote themselves to rendering spacecraft, while others, such as Michael Carroll and Ron Miller, concentrate on astronomical scenes, including views of the surface of Mars* or the moons of Saturn. Some artists are interested in how we are going to explore space, while others are more interested in what we are going to find once we get there.
Although most space artists have a background in art, either as gallery artists or commercial artists, there are some notable exceptions. William K. Hartmann (b. 1939), for example, is a professional astronomer who happens to also be an excellent painter. He is able to combine his artistic talent with his expert knowledge of astronomy. Only a very few space artists have ever flown in space. Alexei Leonov, a Russian cosmonaut who was also the first man to walk in space, is a very fine painter who took drawing supplies with him into orbit. Vladimir Dzhanibekov is another cosmonaut who has translated his experiences in space onto canvas. Of the American astronauts, only one has had a serious interest in art. Alan Bean, who walked on the Moon in 1969, has devoted himself since retiring from the astronaut corps to painting and has become extraordinarily successful depicting scenes from his experiences in the Apollo program.
The artists who specialize in astronomical scenes perform a very valuable service. In one sense, they are like the artists who re-create dinosaurs. By taking astronomical information and combining this with their knowledge of geology, meteorology , and other sciences, as well as their expertise in light, shadow, perspective, and color, they can create a realistic landscape of some other world. Most often these are places that have never been visited by human beings or unmanned probes. In other instances, an orbiter or a spacecraft on a flyby mission may have already taken photographs of a moon or planet. In this case, the artist can use these photos to create an impression of what it might look like to stand on the surface. Since it can be very difficult to interpret orbital photos—which look down on their subjects—paintings like these are very useful in helping to understand what the features actually look like.
Into the Twenty-First Century
Until recently, most space artists worked in the same traditional materials, such as oil paint, acrylics, and watercolors, as other artists and illustrators. Many space artists now also use the computer to either enhance their traditionally rendered work or to generate artwork from scratch. Don Davis (b. 1952)*, one of the twenty-first century's best astronomical artists, no longer works with brushes at all, choosing instead to work exclusively on a computer. There are advantages, both technically and aesthetically, to both methods but it is very unlikely that the computer will ever entirely replace traditional tools. It is the wise artist, however, who is at least familiar with computer techniques.
An International Genre
There are space artists, both professional and amateur and both women and men, working in almost every nation. Indeed, one of the first great artists to specialize in the field, and who helped create it, was a French artist named Lucien Rudaux (1874-1947), who created beautiful space paintings in the 1920s and 1930s. Rudaux set a standard not exceeded until Bonestell published his first space art in the 1940s. Ludek Pešek (1919-1999), a Czechoslovakian expatriate who lived in Switzerland, was probably the best and most influential space artist to follow Bonestell. Pešek illustrated a dozen books with paintings of the planets that looked so natural and realistic it seemed as though they must have been done on location. David A. Hardy (b. 1936) of Great Britain is as adept at depicting spacecraft as he is landscapes of other worlds.
Notable women artists include Pamela Lee, who is highly regarded for her meticulously rendered depictions of astronauts at work, and MariLynn Flynn, who creates planetary landscapes in the tradition of Bonestell and Pešek. The membership roster of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, an organization of space artists, includes people from Germany, Armenia, Sweden, Japan, Russia, Canada, Belgium, and many other countries, all united by their mutual interest in space travel, astronomy, and art.
see also Bonestell, Chesley (volume 4); Literature (volume 1); Mccall, Robert (volume 1); Rawlings, Pat (volume 4); Verne, Jules (volume 1); von Braun, Wernher (volume 3).
Di Fate, Vincent. Infinite Worlds. New York: Penguin Studio, 1997.
Hardy, David A. Visions of Space. Limpsfield, UK: Paper Tiger, 1989.
Launius, Roger D., and Bertram Ulrich. NASA and the Exploration of Space. New York:Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998.
*The artwork in this article is courtesy of Bonestell Space Art.
*Go to Volume 4's article on Terraforming to see Michael Carroll's rendering of a "Blue Mars."
*Don Davis's artwork can be seen in the Volume 2 article "Close Encounters" and Volume 4's article on "Impacts."