Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Three Similar Depictions of John Brown on the Way to the Gallows

A moment that never happened appears in three of the most famous images of John Brown on the day of his execution. In all three Brown is shown leaving the jailhouse in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia) on his way to be hanged. Surprisingly, all three were made at different times. The earliest, made in 1863, seems to have inspired the other two. Apparently the artists took Brown's special request three days before his execution to heart. In that request Brown asked that "his religious attendants" be only "poor little, dirty, ragged bare headed and barefooted slave boys and girls; led by some old grey headed slave mother."

The image above, "Last Moments of John Brown," is probably the most recognizable of the three. It was painted by Thomas Hovenden in 1885 and depicts a bound Brown descending the jailhouse steps and stopping briefly to kiss a black child held up by its mother. Soldier guards hold back the crowds below the steps as almost everyone in the image focuses on Brown and the child.
The image above, "John Brown on His Way to the Execution," was first painted by Louis Ransom in 1860, and then printed by Currier and Ives as a lithograph image in 1863. This look also presented Brown on the jailhouse stairs. A frowning soldier waits for Brown as officials point the way. A sarcastic Virginia state flag floats behind Brown's head with its motto "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants) clearly visible. On the steps is the African American mother and child, while a statue of a "blind justice" is on the left bottom corner.

This last image, "John Brown's Blessing," was painted by Kentuckian Thomas Satterwhite Noble (see December 26, 2009 post) in 1867. Noble grew up the son of a Kentucky hemp planter and served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. If Noble held prejudices against abolitionists and African Americans they certainly do not come across in his artwork. This image of Brown, like the other two, shows the black mother and child, but this time Brown places his hand on the child's head as a blessing. Soldiers that look like they would be more correct for a Revolutionary War or European painting appear behind Brown. One reference to the image states that the attire of the soldiers is correct for one of the militia units that guarded Brown, while another states that the soldiers are dressed as Continental soldiers to symbolize the disparity between the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence (all men are equal) and the reality of 1859 Virginia.

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