I’m puzzled why Chris thinks I may be puzzled…

Posted on June 4, 2011 by


In this post over at Civil War Voices, Chris Wehner wonders if I am puzzled by “the presence of contraband’s blacks offering substances to Union soldiers”. I recently commented over there about the whole contraband thing, and Chris made that a little more clear, but think I may need to offer a little more. Keep in mind, however, I’m still doing some research into the painting by Eastman Johnson (and enjoying that little side project immensely), so, my construction is underway on those greater details.

As a little to clarify in the meantime… I’m not at all puzzled. I find the piece very interesting… fascinating, even. I thoroughly enjoy seeing a piece of art showing such interaction, especially in Virginia. I’ve got a number of accounts of similar interactions in the Shenandoah Valley… though they are usualy focused on interactions between slaves and Union soldiers… which I don’t think is the case here. Rather, I am of the belief that this shows a free black (free even before the war) interacting as an honest-to-gosh, legitimate storekeeper… in Virginia, no less! Not that I have evidence to prove this… it’s just the way I’m leaning, so far.

And, why would that be?

As I mentioned in my comment in Chris’ post, there are several factors that may (or may not) bring more meaning to the piece of art, and I promise to give more in a detailed post at some later time (hopefully sooner than later). First, knowing the limited area in which Eastman Johnson made his rounds in Virginia during the war (and he really wasn’t there that much… three times, perhaps), the mountains in the background of the piece, and the cake/beer sign on the front of the structure… well, between my work on this, along with help from Craig Swain and (thanks to Craig) someone who is well-versed in a particular Virginia battlefield (who remains nameless until I’m told it’s ok to name him), we’re feeling like this might actually reflect something that could have been found in western Loudoun County… where African-Americans could operate businesses in… Quaker country. Certainly, if this is Loudoun County, the storekeeper could not be contraband, as that area was very active, and any contraband there would have no reason to feel safe from capture, and a speedy return to slavery.

So far, the methodology has been, more or less, a matter of historic triangulation, I suppose. It might even be that this art piece does not represent any single scene that Johnson witnessed, but a collection of scenes… or even a collection of thoughts that come together in this scene. As for symbolism, good luck. I’m guessing that Johnson may be incorporating some things into the painting, that may hold meaning, especially understanding his training among masters in Europe… but I’m no art historian, so I’m not well-versed enough in this to speak with confidence.

It’s also important to note that indicators suggest that this was not… I repeat… not… intended as a major work. The original is actually (as this site states) “a mere 10 3/4 x 15 1/4 inches”, and may have been no more than a “preliminary study for a later Johnson painting entitled Dinnertime and Appletime in Old Virginia, a slightly larger work (22 x 25 1/2 inches) that is now apparently lost.”

So, a little more to think about, and just enough for now. More at a later point.

Oh, yes, and, like I said, I’m no art historian, but I find myself drawn to artworks that make good uses of greens, yellows, and blues… something that I find more atypical of most of Johnson’s works.