Essay on the depiction of race in early american art

Early American art often depicts how colonists understood and reacted to the issue of race and cultural differences. Not only are these subjects frequently depicted, one can see the evolution of racism over the course of time.
In Thompkins Harrison Matteson’s “ The Last Race”, the author depicts a scene with a group of Native Americans as they look out across what is presumed to be their homeland. The group appears to be a family with a male, female, and child. The Native Americans valued social collectiveness and held a deep respect for the land they inhabited. The white settlers often intruded upon this land and worked towards individual goals instead of societal interest. For this reason there is a very solemn tone in the painting. The Native Americans look a bit unhappy, perhaps representative of the Native’s constant battle to avoid being wiped out by white settlers. As they look across the horizon, the artist most likely intended this to be a metaphor for looking towards the future and if there would be any more of this tribe in it.
Even architecture in early America shows the influence of segregation between races. Thomas Jefferson’s mansion “ Monticello” despite its immense size was segregated between white and American Americans. The slaves that served in the mansion were kept separate from the white residents. The house was designed with special passageways and dumbwaiters to insure the African Americans didn’t have to be seen by the white residents any more than possibly. Despite its size African Americans were forbidden from staying inside, instead forced into cramped slave quarters on Mulberry Row. The simple log cabins contrast starkly with the rich architectural detail of Monticello. The mansion was built with an out of sight out of mind mentality in regards to the black servants who helped keep Monticello running on a daily basis.
William Sydney Mounte’s painting “ The Power of Music” also represents issues of race in society. The tone of the painting is lighter hearted than that of Matteson’s “ The Last Race” showing an African American man listening to music in a lively setting. However the theme of racism is still depicted by the separation of the African American man from his white counterparts in the scene. Other stereotypes such as a liquor jug and tools also indicate that the African American man is only good for getting drunk or menial work. The man is segregated from his peers. We should each strive to fully understand what racism truly is and how it affects our lives. The painting illustrates the need to realize that segregation existed in early American It was not until Americans became willing to change their own prejudices and perceptions that they have learned and refused to give into pressure from others. While this man seems to be having a good time it is evident that there are some issues with him being there.
The painting “ The Death of Jane McCrea” by John Vanderlyn, represents a very negative connotation about race. The painting depicts Jane McCrea, the fiancée of a soldier that was captured by Indians during the late 1700’s. Then during the struggle between two warriors, Jane was scalped. For fear of breaking the alliance the Indians were left unpunished causing a political uproar in early colonial America. This painting is symbolic of the fear American’s held towards other races. The Indian figures are depicted as very strong and violent. Their facial expressions are ones of malice and the tomahawk upraised to strike. The figure of Jane is depicted as weak and helpless as she kneels with her hair grasped by one of the Indians. Her face shows pure terror and the audience knows that death is imminent. The background is dark while the figures are lighter bringing focus to the foreground scene. The lines of the body also draw focus to the figure of the woman all converging upon her head.
While the painting of Jane McCrea represents the fallacy of the French and Indian War, the painting “ The Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West present a different view of Native Americans, that of allies and friends. This painting shows a general in his last moments of life as he lays on the battlefield surrounded by concerned soldiers. The lone Native American in the piece, presumably a guide for the army as was typical of the time, is crouched beside the fallen general. His figure is in the forefront of the picture and contrasted by the multitude of while soldiers all of which are standing. The Native American figure is the only one at eye level with the general making them both focal points in the piece. The Native American man appears to be concerned for the fallen man yet calm compared to the frantic action around him. No one is paying any mind to the Indian, nor is he segregated from the rest of the group. He seems included in the action and as emotional as any of the other figures around him. West’s painting humanizes Native Americans depicting them as he would any other person. This painting shows the Indian as a help to the settlers, someone who was willing to fight at their side and treat one another as equals.
In Benjamin West’s painting “ Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”, West depicts the treaty between the Quakers and the Indian tribes of colonial America. The painting is of neo-classism style. Communication between Europeans and Native Americans was often very strained due to cultural misunderstandings (Calloway. Pg. 79). Even methods of communication were vastly different; Europeans relied heavily on the use of the written word while Native Americans held great reverence to the spoken word. This caused disagreement in any attempts at diplomacy. To Europeans the written word was law, while Native Americans took all promises and negotiations into account and felt betrayed by the methods of the Europeans. Hence why the signing of a treaty would be a monumental event for early American representing communication between two races. The lighting and composition highlight the figure of Penn and the action of signing the treaty. Symbolism is used through the women and children in the painting. They represent unity between both men and women of different cultures and the children represent a new generation that will benefit from the treaty being signed in the painting. The idea that land could be “ owned” was a relatively new concept to Native Americans. Communal land ownership was the common practice amongst natives. Occasional skirmishes over hunting rights between tribes existed, but the idea of “ ownership” was a purely European concept.
Overall both these examples of early American art depicts problems associated with cultural differences and race. In many of them the subjects are suffering from the effects of racism, such as segregation, exile, or through negative imagery. The Native Americans face an uncertain future while the African American’s are subject to extreme racism. There are a few pieces that show promise for equality in colonial life, by depicting treaty signings and comradely. It is refreshing to see that some were willing to accept other races as equal and address cultural difference in a non violent manners. Overall this art depicts the social understanding of race in a visual context sometimes with clarity and sometimes clouded by the racist views of the artist.
Calloway, Colin G.. The World turned upside down: Indian voices from early America. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Print.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. NewYork: Oxford University Press
Philosophy Today. ” Effects Of Materialism.” Philosophy – AllAboutPhilosophy. org. N. p., n. d. Web. 6 Jan. 2013. .
WDC. ” Native American Clashes with European Settlers.” West Virginia Division of Culture and History. N. p., n. d. Web. 6 Jan. 2013. .