Monday, January 30, 2012

Emancipation Tableau

Emancipation Tableau, Acrylic, 24 x 30, 2012

I recently completed this tableau illustrating the Jan. 1, 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation with a collective portrait of those most involved and responsible for the abolition of slavery in this country.  It is not intended as a literal depiction; the figures painted are not all shown as they would have been in 1863 (John Brown, for instance, had been hanged years before) and the relative heights are not necessarily accurate. 

In the center, seated, ready to sign is Abraham Lincoln.  To his left is his Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin, an abolitionist from Maine who also served in the House, the Senate, as a governor, and ambassador, and to his right is Representative Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the Way and Means Committee, so powerful he was called the Dictator of the House.  Stevens is often seen, unjustly, in an unfavorable light owing to his vindictive quest to impeach President Andrew Johnson, but history upholds his views and his vision.  He was not only an ardent supporter of equality and education for freed slaves, he strongly believed that diversity, ethnic and cultural, serves to enrich society -- not a common opinion at the time.  Standing, from left to right, is John Brown, a figure of tremendous power and intense conviction, even though he was just a simple farmer.  Despite his radical militarism, of which few approved, he was revered as a martyr.  Next to him was his initial supporter in Kansas, Amos Adams Lawrence, a philanthropist who contributed to the colonization of Liberia and sent rifles to help the northern settlers in Kansas who were being threatened there by Southerners who were mostly paid thugs.  Lawrence, Kansas, was named for him; he later put up money for the college there and for Lawrence College in Appleton, WI, a city named after his father-in-law.  His father Amos and uncle Abbott, who founded Lawrence, MA,  were Boston Brahmins, among the wealthiest men in the country, and the family established the tradition and the standard of American philanthropy.  William Lloyd Garrison was publisher of The Liberator and the most influential and well-known abolitionist.  Robert Purvis was a collaborator and philanthropist.  He was originally from Charleston, his father being English, his maternal grandparents, Jewish and black Moorish.  He was educated as a gentleman, attended Amherst College, and inherited considerable wealth that he choose to use to benefit the cause of emancipation and equal rights.  Frederick Douglass, run-away slave with a black mother and a white father, an accomplished  orator and writer, was one of the great Americans of the 19th Century and was the symbol of emancipation and of the Negro race.    General Ulysses S. Grant, not only a great military leader but a quiet, modest man of great humanity, was most responsible for winning the Civil War.  Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a dashing figure from a wealthy family, commanded a colored regiment from Massachusetts that proved the worth of the African-American soldier.  He would die heroically with his men and be remembered as a hero.  Harriet Tubman, like Douglass, a former slave from Maryland, was active in the Underground Railroad and had an extraordinary and valiant career working for abolition and other causes.   John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker, campaigned tirelessly against slavery and used his poetry to aid the cause.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, sister of celebrated preacher Henry Ward Beecher, was a novelist whose first book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, written in 1851 when she was 39, had a profound impact on people's attitude toward slavery.

What the painting commemorates has personal significance for me because in my mother's family were many abolitionists and I am, in fact, related to several of the figures depicted.   My mother's great-grandfather, Elijah Whittier Blaisdell was a publisher in Vermont who printed abolitionist tracts and pamphlets.  His son, Elijah Whittier Blaisdell, Jr. came to Rockford, IL in 1853, was a founder of the Republican Party, and published a newspaper, the Rockford Republican, which supported the cause of abolition.  He met Abraham Lincoln at a meeting of newspaper publishers and was so impressed with him that he became the first to support Lincoln for President -- in 1856.  My great-grandfather served in the Illinois State legislature in 1859 and had the opportunity to vote for Lincoln for Senator.   Lincoln was, in fact, a distant relation: Blaisdell's fourth great-grandmother, Mary Gilman was the sister of Blanche Gilman who married Edward Lincoln, Abe's immigrant ancestor.  His wife, my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Woodbridge Lawrence, had a brother, Charles B. Lawrence who became an abolitionist after going south for his health and working as a schoolmaster in Mississippi.  As a lawyer in Illinois (later Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court)  he was a personal as well as professional friend of Lincoln. --- John Brown is a descendant of Rev. John Woodbridge ( a grandson of Governor Thomas Dudley of the Massachusett's Bay Colony) and his wife Abigail Leete ( a daughter of Connecticut governor William Leete), as I am, and is a fifth cousin.  My great-grandmother Elizabeth Lawrence was not a close relation of Amos Adams Lawrence, but they both were descended from John Lawrence, a carpenter/builder who emigrated to Watertown, MA from Suffolk, England in the early 1630's.  However, from other connections A.A. Lawrence is my mother's fourth cousin.  I am also related to Garrison, and Grant is a sixth cousin.  Hannibal Hamlin, whose fourth great-grandfather was Miles Standish, had Plymouth Colony ancestry, which I don't, but through the Sherman family we have a common ancestor in 16th century England.   Colonel Shaw, also descended from Governor Thomas Dudley as well as from the eminent non-conformist minister Rev. John Lothrop, is a fifth cousin of mine as is Harriet Beecher Stowe. I am not related to John Greenleaf Whittier, but the Whittiers and the Blaisdells, my mother's family, were well-acquainted with each other, both living in Amesbury and Haverhill, MA.  My great, great, great grandfather's step-father was, in fact, Nathaniel Whittier, a second cousin of John Greenleaf Whittier's father.

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