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The Civil War: putting Liberty front and center

Eastman Johnson's painting "A Ride For Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves" captures a family's daring escape to Union lines during the Civil War. The artwork, painted in 1862, portrays the family's bravery and determination, challenging the common narrative of slaves waiting for emancipation. This radical depiction remained unseen during Johnson's lifetime. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - We're standing in the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum looking at Eastman Johnson's "A Ride For Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves." This was painted about 1862, this was in the middle of the Civil War. - The central drama of the work is encapsulated in this family unit, particularly the figure of the father and the mother, who are in profile facing opposite directions. - They're looking out, because what they're doing is really dangerous, this is a family of slaves, that is escaping to the Union line, that is escaping to territory that's controlled by the North. - The scene that's depicted is of an early morning battlefield, there are glints of light reflecting off of the bayonets in the background, we know that this was a scene, that Johnson claims to have witnessed directly. - It's such a sympathetic image, our heart immediately goes out to this family. - The figures are not caricatures of an African-American family, but rather they're sympathetically rendered and what's particularly unique about this work is that in the history of genre painting, most American artists tended to include African-American figures as marginal to the scene, quite literally pushing them to the margins of the composition and here Johnson has placed this family squarely in the center of the canvas. - The artist has almost silhouetted these figures, we have to look closely to make out any details. - But we are able to get a sense of the resolve of the father, perhaps a sense of palpable anxiety on the part of the mother and the horse that's galloping, which also conveys this urgency. - I love how the artist has placed our viewpoint looking up and there's a real sense of drama and clarity, even given the mists of the morning. - Johnson has captured a radical act of self-emancipation. - When I was in grade school, I was taught that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, that it was an act of the American government. - The figure of Abraham Lincoln as someone who freed the slaves is something that is very pervasive during this time period. There's also the image of the supplicant slave pleading for their own emancipation and that's why this is so radical, because we see this African-American family striving and actively pursuing their own freedom. - And it's fascinating as a result to think about the fact that this painting was never exhibited, it could have been exhibited, but the artist must have held it back. - Yes, both the painting in Brooklyn's collection as well as in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as well as another version, which is now lost were never publicly exhibited, they were never sold and in fact they remained in the artist's possession at the time of his death. - This painting needs to be understood within its political context, but even within a legal context. - The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and essentially any enslaved individuals, who left the South had to be returned to their owners. - But with the hostilities of the Civil War, the Fugitive Slave Act became null and void and in the year before this painting was made, a Union general declared that any slave, that was able to cross two Union lines would be considered contraband of the war, it meant that they were no longer property under Southern rule. Historians have sometimes noted that fugitive slaves were of great benefit to the Union army, they provided intelligence based on their deep understanding of the topography, the whereabouts of troops and other critical information. - And they also fought in the war themselves. - I wonder what the reception would have been had Eastman Johnson shown this painting publicly in the year that it was painted. - I also wonder that and I wonder to what extent Northerners might have read a particular meaning or message from this work as opposed to that of the Confederate South. - In practice, this family is entering into a great unknown, they're leaving the world that they've known, but the trauma of that world was such, that it necessitated this escape. (jazz piano music)