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Course: Art of the Americas to World War I > Unit 7

Lesson 5: Realism in the United States

Cotton, oil, and the economics of history

Samuel Colman's 1868 painting captures a pivotal moment in American history, highlighting the transition from sail to steam power, and the shift in commodities from cotton to petroleum. The artwork reflects the economic and social changes post-Civil War, including the impact of slavery on the cotton industry. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Beau Regan
    How long would it take to make a painting like that and how much was it to make?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      As for "how long would it take?" There's no way for me to know. It would depend on the speed with which you paint, and the humidity of the air at the time you expect your paints to dry. It would also depend on if you choose to use lacquer, watercolor or oil paints.
      As for "how much?" That would depend on the cost of the materials. You have to make some choices before either question can be answered.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

(upbeat jazzy music) - [Narrator] We're in the storage room of the Terra Foundation for American Art looking at a large painting by an American painter named Samuel Colman. This dates to just after the Civil War. We think it was painted in 1868. - [Announcer] It was painted that year, we think, because the ship, the Glad Tidings, was being handed over from the father to the son so the transition I think is the reason the painting may have been created. Our research has told us a lot about the Glad Tidings which transported cotton throughout the Civil War period and after. It traveled between New Orleans, New York and London. - [Narrator] I think it's easy for us in the 21st century to lose sight of how important ships were in a port city like New York. New York's life was on the water. Its wealth, its prosperity was the result of commerce up and down the coast but also to Europe. - [Announcer] The large sail ships that we see in the foreground were the vessels that made the transAtlantic voyage. Off to the left we see a steamboat and so bringing the sail ships and the steam vessels together, these two technologies that were still working in tandem during this period. - [Narrator] This is a painting that is about those kinds of contrasts of the past and the future and I think that it's no mistake that the artist is painting that just a few years after the close of the Civil War when things really are shifting and the artist brings those shifts out, not just in the contrast between sail and steam power but also in what's being transported. - [Announcer] At right we see multiple bales of cotton, likely from New Orleans, possibly being transferred to another vessel for shipment to London. We don't quite know but the presence of this cotton alludes to that great wealth coming out of the cotton kingdom. - [Narrator] The American South produced cotton that was used around the world. Especially in the mills of England and it was incredibly valuable material. It was the great cash crop for the South but it was labor intensive and it used enslaved labor and so it's a crop that is bound up with the Civil War. - [Announcer] I think the strength of cotton on the world market in the days leading up to the Civil War is the factor that gave the Confederacy the confidence that England and France would come in and intervene on their behalf and I think without that kind of economic power, the Confederacy would not have been as bold to secede from the union. - [Narrator] And in fact, in this year, there's a story in the London Illustrated News celebrating American ships now in the post-war era that are able to bring American cotton to the mills in northern England. - [Announcer] There was great jubilation when those ships, including the Glad Tidings, entered the harbor. Many people think that the trade in cotton ceased entirely during the Civil War. What happened is much more complicated and much richer I think. It's during the early to mid Civil War period that a cotton manufacturer by the name of Edward Atkinson speaks with Abraham Lincoln to begin to utilize the Union Army in seizing cotton plantations in areas of the southern United States where the Union had advanced to during the conflict and so Union troops would go into a large cotton growing plantation, seize it, seize its labor force and they would rename these now freed slaves as contrabands of war. This discussion about contrabands raised many issues, because now these formerly held slaves were making their steps toward the emancipation. The term was free labor cotton and these contrabands produced this free labor cotton as they called it because these contrabands, they were paid minimal wages and they were given certain rights that exceeded that under slavery and so this free labor cotton became very significant to abolitionist minded countries like England where the distaste for taking U.S. cotton throughout this period was a result of their anti-slavery political positions. - [Narrator] But this painting is even more fascinating because to the left of the bales of cotton, we see barrels. - [Narrator] In the years after the Civil War, the Southern cotton economy would never really recover. By that time, England and other cotton using, manufacturing countries were looking elsewhere for their cotton crops. To Africa, to India and so forth and so the South never fully recovered its control on that market. If you look closely at the end of the barrels, you read the words New York Petroleum Company and below that you'll notice a dark spot and in fact, it's raw, crude petroleum spilling out of those barrels. - [Announcer] This is long before the adoption of the combustion engine for the automobile. Petroleum was still quite a novel thing. It was being marketed to replace whale oil which was very expensive and oil was just becoming plentiful thanks to the discovery of the important oil field in western Pennsylvania. I'm not sure that Colman understood just how far seeing his choice was in including both cotton on the right. This important commodity of the 19th century, and the commodity that would so shape the 20th. - [Narrator] Both of which responsible for great amounts of armed conflict. - [Announcer] Let's turn for just a moment to the composition and to the light because this painting is so beautifully, so carefully rendered. First of all, you get this sense that this is an artist that understood the rigging of these ships. But I'm struck by the way that the masts tower over us. This is the skyline of New York before the skyscraper. - [Narrator] Also interesting is the way that the smoke that's coming off of the tar pits is infiltrating some of the riggings of the ships so it's clear on one hand then also atmospheric in other areas. - [Announcer] The artist has kept all of the figures in this painting at a distance but we're still close enough to make out that at least one figure is African American. - [Narrator] We notice that he is bare footed. He's rolled his pants up to his knees and he is facing away from us, tending to the cotton. This was a common trope during the Civil War period for rending African American figures. - [Announcer] And because New York is a northern state, we don't associate it with slavery but New York had slaves well into the 19th century. - [Narrator] New York was intricately intertwined with the plight of the South, economically speaking, and I think the African American figure in the foreground both looks back, of course to the plight of slavery but here in this post-war moment, 1868, the height of reconstruction, this African American figure also gestures forward in time, thinking about all of the challenges that African Americans would have to overcome over the following years through the Reconstruction Period into the Jim Crow Era and then finally into the moment of Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s. - [Announcer] It's extraordinary how a single canvas, one that at first is seemingly just a lovely image of ships reaches out into some of the most complex and troubling issues in American history. (upbeat jazzy piano music)