A Closer Look

Upon approaching research for this week’s blog post, I stumbled across this image in the Library of Congress’ digital archive of images. In the name of the thirst for knowledge, I looked for further images; maybe one that was a more readily used piece of music, or maybe a log of a certain event that might point me towards the cultural events of a given time period. Though educational and truly interesting, I kept remembering the painting of the happy black fiddler and the happy white family and the happy children dancing happily. 

image link: https://www.loc.gov/item/98516820/

The picture’s description as it states in the Library of Congress’ web archive is as follows:

Print shows an African American man playing fiddle and family dancing. It resembles, but is an Americanized variation of, Auguste Dircks (1806-1881) “Dancing to the fiddle” now in the Josef Mensing Gallery, Hamm-Rhynern, Germany. 

The reading of Eileen Southern jumped to the front of my mind. Her reading explores the means of musical practices in the the South during the years of slavery, and the ways that black musicians were often times used as entertainment for white slave owners. With that knowledge, I began to consider the circumstances of this image’s creation, as I was very taken aback by the painting’s lighthearted nature. Certainly a painting depicting a slave and white family happily coexisting to the credit of some fire fiddle music should have been painted by a white person, someone with a stake to try and “paint” the history of black Americans playing music in servitude in a far more positive light. 

Not much is known about August Dircks other than the information that he was German-born and lived from 1806-1871. With the knowledge that this painting was not American born, my viewing of it was altered slightly. Though it is important to mention the African diaspora was not exclusive to the United States, knowing this painting came from a mind outside of the Antebellum South shifted my focus. My attention went toward the black fiddler in the center of the painting, the only character painted who does not have attention paid to his expression. Rather his face is obscured by the fiddle he is being forced to play, looking downward as a slave player like him would likely be privy to not making mistakes when performing for his oppressors. Obscured, ignored, relegated to the painting’s source of joy without the slightest mention of his experience or attitude, this man fades into ambiguity. 

I think that this painting is actually quite interesting, as the experience that I had dissecting its contents is likely the desired experience for Dircks. As a white person in America, the circumstances of my upbringing have predisposed me to ignore the experiences of minority individuals. My white eye went directly to the white family having a good bit of Southern fun, and not the enslaved black man, quite literally playing for his life. This realization is the painting’s purpose, a mirror image towards the viewer’s worldview. 

I don’t know if I did this assignment entirely correctly, but I just had an interesting experience researching this image and was reminded that music research can be flawed as well.

Duval & Hunter, and James Fuller Queen. Power of music / chromo. of Duval & Hunter, Philadelphia ; Jas. F. Queen after A. Dircks. New York: published by A. & C. Kaufmann. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/98516820/>.

The two sides of Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith's portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Fig. 1: Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith painted the posthumous portrait of American writer Walt Whitman in 1897, several years after Whitman’s death.1 The oil study on canvas appears to be based off of a portrait photo which was taken by photographer George C. Cox in 1887. Whitman had loved this photo so much that he titled it “The Laughing Philosopher” and sold the other portraits from the session to supplement his income.2

Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892, spending the majority of his life on the east coast, dying in Camden, New Jersey, He was an American poet, essayist and journalist and as a humanist, his works are regarded as being transitory between transcendentalism and realism with elements of each idea present. He was concerned with politics and abolitionism (although this is not necessarily based on his belief in racial equality) and was wishy washy with his endorsement of abolitionism. There has also been debate over what Whitman’s sexuality was, although this began much later after his death and there is still disagreement among biographers as to whether or not Whitman had even had sexual experiences with men (although having or lacking experience should not be the validating factor as to whether a person truly identifies a certain way).

George C. Cox's photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

Fig. 3: George C. Cox’s photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

It is unknown as to whether or not Xanthus Russell Smith was acquainted with Whitman or was instead an admirer of his work. Smith was known for using small brushstrokes and sharp detail. The portrait can be interpreted by many different lenses, including artistic, historical and modern perspectives.

The portrait is composed fairly symmetrically, with Whitman’s shoulders facing at an angle away from the painter and his face squared to the front. The colors of the portrait are muted and neutral, lacking color except for around the eyes, which could be interpreted as a nod towards Whitman’s interpretation of the world, beliefs and persuasions (i.e. gray).

The focal point of the portrait is definitely the eyes. The viewer is drawn to them immediately, then down Whitman’s nose to his shock-white mustache and beard. The eyes are the most lifelike piece of the portrait and along with the rest of the face are almost completely centered in the portrait. However, this positioning is not so much a surprise as it is a given that the focal point of a portrait should be the subject’s face.

The painting is divided down the center of the frame, with one side of the background lighter than the other, and on Whitman’s face, the light patterns seem to be reversed, suggesting that there were two different light sources used in the photograph Smith used or in his interpretation of it. The use of light might be a nod to Whitman’s ideas and philosophy, which went between transcendentalism and realism or to the two sides of his sexuality and the way the public perceived him. The latter interpretation would however be carried into that of the modernist lens as few writers speculated on his sexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, Whitman’s poetry has been set to music by many composers, including the music of John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill, Roger Sessions and Ned Rorem.

You can view Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of Walt Whitman in the Flaten Art Museum reserve collection housed in St. Olaf College’s Dittman Center.

Bibliography

1. Smith, Xanthus Russell. Walt Whitman. 1897. Oil on canvas. 17.5 in x 13.5 in. Dittman Center : Second (2) Floor : Storage Vault : 19A : Flaten Art Museum.

2. Whitman, Walt. Lafayette in Brooklyn. New York: George D. Smith, 1905.

3. Cox, George C. Walt Whitman. 1887. Photograph.