Saturday, December 26, 2009

One View of Slavery in Art: Thomas Satterwhite Noble

History is interesting to me for so many different reasons, but one in particular is the joy of finding individuals that defy convention. Applying stereotypes is an all too easy way for us to make sense of the past and present. But, thankfully there are those rare people who come along ever so often and shake things up, keep us on our toes, and remind us that not everyone in a certain category sees things the same way.

I think a good example of this is artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble. Noble was born in 1835 into a slaveholding Lexington, Kentucky family that owned a hemp plantation and rope manufacturing business. He is said to have spent many evenings in the slave field quarters listening to the stories they told. He was educated at that city's Transylvania University and then went to Louisville to study under Samuel Woodson Price in the early 1850s. He then moved to New York and then on to St. Louis, and in 1856 he moved to Paris, France to study under Thomas Couture. He returned to the United States before the Civil War, and settled again in St. Louis. When war broke out he joined a Missouri Confederate regiment and eventually became a captain. He later explained that he joined the Confederate cause for his and the local community's strong belief in states' rights, and not out of any attachment to the institution of slavery.

When he returned to St. Louis following the war and then to New York where he took up African Americans as the primary focus of his works. Whether his motive was out of personal empathy for blacks, and to highlight their struggles, or for potentially greater sales in the Northern art market, or some combination of the two, is open to interpretation.

One of Nobles earliest paintings is "The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis," (pictured below)originally painted in 1865, but repainted in 1870 after the first copy was damaged. Another early painting (1867) is "Margaret Garner," which illustrates the true story of a northern Kentucky slave who had escaped on the frozen Ohio River only to be cornered in a Cincinnati house by slave catchers where she murdered one of her children rather than see it returned to slavery. This particular picture seems to show the horror of slavery and the horrors of infanticide at the same time.

In 1868 he painted what is I think one of the most striking images that I have ever viewed. "The Price of Blood" depicts a mixed race son, being sold by the seated slave owning father. The slave trader is standing behind a table that has several stacks of gold coins. The dealer is intently looking at the sales papers while the son, hat in hand and barefooted, looks away. The father/owner seems both at ease and disturbed at the same time by the proceedings. In the back ground is a painting on the wall depicting the biblical scene of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice.

Noble painted a number of other slave related images. His view of "John Brown's Blessing," while historically inaccurate in content and setting, shows the compassion and understanding that Brown demonstrated throughout his life toward African Americans.

Whatever may have been Noble's primary motivation, these images painted during the troubling years of Reconstruction are hardly what one would expect from a former Confederate officer that was raised on slaveholding Kentucky plantation. His seemingly sincere, dignified, and empathetic portrayal of African Americans during slavery reveal that not all Southerners during Reconstruction fit so neatly into the pigeon hole with the stereotypical violent, racist, Yankee-hating Rebel.


  1. Hi, Tim. Great post on TS Noble. However, in "Price of Blood" the father of the mixed race child is actually behind the table. The slave owner is sitting down drumming his fingers, waiting impatiently. You can read more here:

  2. Thanks for the compliments! The site you recommend seems to confirm my interpretation. It states, "Looking closely, one may notice that the seated man and the young boy have similar facial features—so similar that they must be related. The old man is selling his mixed-race son into slavery. The gold on the table is the price of his blood."