An African American man sits in a shed like structure on a short step ladder with one foot on the ground playing a banjo. He is dressed in a high black hat, long black coat, white shirt, brown tie, and light brown trousers. Standing at left and looking at him is a small boy wearing a slouch hat, blue and red coat, white shirt and blue trousers. He is holding a string from a toy with wheels. The walls in the background have utensils and tools hung on them.
In Confidence and Admiration, a scene of a slave playing the banjo in the company of an admiring young boy, Eastman Johnson repeated the central figure group from his well-known Negro Life at the South (New-York Historical Society). Painted in 1859, this complex painting of slaves in an interior yard next to the Johnson family home in Washington, D.C., became the century’s best-known image of American slaves and launched the artist’s career when he showed it in New York later that year. Both versions of Johnson’s depiction of slave camaraderie and music-making might appear nostalgic and romantic. But, as abolitionist (and former slave) Frederick Douglass emphasized to readers of his autobiography (1845): “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.”
Here, Johnson repeats the central figure group from his Negro Life at the South (New York Historical Society), the painting whose 1859 New York exhibition launched the artist’s career, and would became the century’s best-known image of American slaves (a subject explored in a seminal article by Smith College Professor John Davis.)
African American; musical instruments; men; boys; children; music; genre scenes; slavery
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