Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University (Durham, North Carolina)
Title of Song: Kingdom Coming
Composer: Bryant, Dan
Publisher: Charles Magnus & Co
Year & Place: New York, New York
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Bsvg 301458
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: bsvg.301458
The image at the top of this broadside shows a male and a female of dark skin walking together arm in arm. The man wears a straw hat, a white collared shirt and blue overalls. His partner in this leisurely jaunt sports a long red dress, a matching straw hat and she is wrapped in a blue shawl. For their large, rotund bodies, they are supported tenuously by unusually small feet. The viewer is offered little specific information about their identities. The background depicts a massive body of water littered sporadically with a large ship or a barge. Each has tall structures and bright red flags wave from their peaks of several. The variable shaded formations in the area of the sky and the horizon are too nebulous to certain of what they are or their function. In pale orange there appear to be mountains, while grey and black could be smoke. This coloring could also, however, reflect damage to the print.
Ambivalence and ambiguity abound in this image. There is not enough information presented to determine the origin or destination of the ships nor the details of the cargo aboard. The combination of the viewer’s vantage point behind the couple as well as the lack of any recognizable facial features prevent them from approaching individuality. This suggests that the couple does not represent any specific black male or female. In tandem with their abnormally small feet, and their large round bodies, discussed in the music’s lyrics, this piece has an element of caricature and malicious humor. When read with the poem or song, the image might be construed as a moment of subversion in which the masters have run away in fear of the gunboats and Kingdom, or rightful order or things where anyone can take a stroll, has come.
One of the most remarkable exceptions is this painting by the leading mid-century figure painter Eastman Johnson. Born in 1824 in Lovell, Maine, Eastman Johnson took to art early in life, setting up a portrait studio in Augusta when he was 18 years old. He later worked in Boston and Washington, D.C., and in 1849 traveled to Europe where he received extensive training in drawing and painting. In 1859, Johnson opened an exhibit in New York which featured Negro Life in the South. It was a turning point in his career — one which would lead to his becoming, for many years, the foremost genre painter in the United States.
During and even immediately after the Civil War, very few American artists undertook direct representations of the catastrophic conflict or of the experience of the enslaved African Americans whose plight it decided. He claimed to have based the subject on an actual event he had witnessed near the Manassas, Virginia, battlefield on March 2, 1862, just days before the Confederate stronghold was ceded to Union forces. This painting, A Ride for Liberty depicts a black family fleeing toward freedom. It is based on an incident which Johnson witnessed during the Civil War battle of Manassas. The mother, holding a small child in her arms, looks back apprehensively for possible pursuers. In this powerfully simplified composition, a family of fugitive slaves charges for the safety of Union lines in the dull light of dawn. The absence of white figures in this liberation subject makes it virtually unique in American art of the period—these African Americans are the independent agents of their own freedom. Perhaps owing to the exceptional daring of the subject, Johnson appears never to have exhibited this work.