At the threshold

Recently, I had done a series of blogs on the representation of African Americans in art. It seems incomplete without including the sensitive post-Civil War works of Winslow Homer in which he depicts African Americans standing at the threshold between slavery and freedom. Homer (1836-1910) is regarded as one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century.

Near Andersonville, 1875

Andersonville (Camp Sumter) was a brutal civil war camp where 10s of thousands of Union soldiers died. In this poetic painting a woman stands at the threshold  between slavery and freedom – darkness and light.

A Visit from the Mistress, 1876

In A Visit from the Mistress, 1876, the old mistress visits the Afrcan American women who are warmed by the glow of the fireplace, while the old mistress looks cold and angular. The body posture and the rather stiff visit all give a sense on underlying hostility, and a sense that despite the radical shift not much has changed in reality.

The Bright Side, 1865

This painting is the subject of considerable debate as to Homer’s meaning. Whatever the interpretation – the men here are taking a well-deserved break after hard work in the army and exude dignity and a sense of calm.

Weaning the Calf, 1875

What at first glance appears to be an idyllic childhood scene, is in reality a depiction of post-Civil war reality. The young boy in the front, and the one under the tree are doing all the work, while the other two boys look at the action and offer no assistance. Homer’s work here seems to be speaking volumes for the difficult future that lies ahead.

(Images courtesy MFA Boston, NC Museum, Google Arts & Culture).

22 August 1620

On August 22, 1620 two ships dropped anchor off Bayards Cove in Dartmouth, England. After facing delays in Southampton to make the necessary repairs to Speedwell, the two ships, The Mayflower and Speedwell, had embarked on their transatlantic voyage on August 15, 1620. They sailed for a few days when Speedwell began leaking again, and they retreated to Dartmouth. This coastal town was used to large merchant ships coming along its shores – however it is unlikely that the town had ever hosted ships that were on as meaningful a journey as the Separatists and Strangers that sailed in on Auguat 22, 1620.

Bayards Cove, Dartmouth

Robert Cushman was one of the Separatist leaders and organizers of the voyage who was making the journey on the Speedwell. It is from his letter dated August 17, 1620 (Julian Calendar which is about 10 days behind the current calendar) to his friend that we have accounts of the troubles Speedwell was facing:

Our pinnace will not cease leaking, else I think we had been half-way to Virginia. Our voyage hither hath been as full of crosses as ourselves have been of crookedness. We put in here to trim her; and I think, as others also, if we had stayed at sea but three or four hours more, she would have sunk right down. And though she was twice trimmed at Hampton, yet now she is as open and leaky as a sieve; and there was a board a man might have pulled off with his fingers, two foot long, where the water came in as at a mole hole. We lay at Hampton seven days in fair weather, waiting for her, and now we lie here waiting for her in as fair a wind as can blow, and so have done these four days, and are like to lie four more, and by that time the wind will happily turn as it did at Hampton. Our victuals will be half eaten up, I think, before we go from the coast of England, and if our voyage last long, we shall not have a month’s victuals when we come in the country.

In 1619, Robert Cushman also wrote a pamphlet/book The Cry of a Stone which provides details as to why the Lieden Separatist separated from the Church of England. The book was published in 1642 under the name Coachman, and it was not until the mid-20th Century that the book was identified to have been written by a Separatist. Robert Cushman was one of the people who did not continue with the journey at Plymouth in 1620, though he did go there in 1621 where his son Thomas Cushman became a prominent member of the Pilgrim community.

After Speedwell’s repairs were completed, the two ships set sail once more on September 2, 1620.

Mayflower

Methinks I see it now, that one solitary, adventurous vessel, the ‘Mayflower’ of a forlorn hope, freighted with the prospects of a future State, and bound across the unknown sea. I behold it pursuing, with a thousand misgivings, the uncertain, the tedious voyage. Suns rise and set, and weeks and months pass, and winter surprises them on the deep, but brings them not the sight of the wished-for shore. I see them now scantily supplied with provisions, crowded almost to suffocation in their ill-stored prison, delayed by calms, pursuing a circuitous route; and now driven in fury before the raging tempest, on the high and giddy waves. The awful voice of the storm howls through the rigging. The laboring masts seem straining from their base; the dismal sound of the pumps is heard; the ship leaps, as it were, madly from billow to billow; the ocean breaks, and settles with engulfing floods over the floating deck, and beats with deadening weight against the staggered vessel. I see them, escaped from these perils, pursuing their all but desperate undertaking, and landed at last, after five months’ passage, on the ice-clad rocks of Plymouth,—weak and weary from the voyage, poorly armed, scantily provisioned, depending on the charity of their shipmaster for a draft of beer on board, drinking nothing but water on shore, without shelter, without means, surrounded by hostile tribes.

Edward Everett, Plymouth, December 22, 1824

Sunday Seven – Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres, distinguished politician, statesman, and Nobel laureate was born on this day in 1923. He served as both prime minister and president of Israel. He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his “efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” This week’s Sunday Seven Quotes are from his speeches and his books:

  • We should use our imagination more than our memory.
  • If you eat three times a day you’ll be fed but if you read three times a day you’ll be wise.
  • If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact – not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.
  • If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.
  • When Israel was weak, I worked to make her fierce. Bot once she was strong, I gave my life’s efforts to peace.
  • Peace is a purpose – a goal worthy of the chase, while war is a function – born out of necessity.
  • You don’t make peace with your friends. You make it with your unsavory enemies.
  • It’s not enough to be up to date. We have to be up to-morrow.

15 August 1620

Edward Moran (1829 -1901), Embarkation of the Pilgrims from Southhampton 1620

It was 400 years ago today that two ships sailed from Southampton (UK) for America – Mayflower and Speedwell. The ships that left Southampton carried the Separatists and the Strangers.

Leaving Leiden, July 22, 1620

The Separatists had left UK because of religious persecution in 1608, and had settled in Leiden, Netherlands. After 12 years they were disillusioned by their life and their ability to practice religion freely and decided to move to America. They sold all their belongings, bought the Speedwell and sailed from Leiden for Southampton on July 22, 1620.

Pilgrim memorial Southampton, UK

They met up with more Separatists, and people who were moving for non-religious reasons, known as Strangers, in Southampton. The Speedwell had developed a leak in its journey from Leiden and needed repairs. While the repairs happened, the Speparatists lived on what is now known as Pilgrim Hill. They stocked up necessary supplies from merchants in Southampton before leaving on this long and unknown journey.

Arthur Welling Fowles (1815- 1883), Mayflower leaving Southampton 1881

It was on August 15, 1620, after Speedwell was fixed that both ships sailed. The journey, however, was cut short when Speedwell developed another leak after sailing for about 300 miles into the ocean. She was considered unsafe, and both ships turned around and headed towards Plymouth, UK.

Speedwell cannot make the journey

Speedwell had already been repaired, and at this point was considered not safe to make the transatlantic journey. Some Separatists abandoned the idea completely and returned to Leiden, other remained in Plymouth, and the rest got on board the iconic Mayflower which sailed into the ocean and into history a month later.

Speedwell’s Song

Robinson Of Leyden
Oliver Wendell Holmes

HE sleeps not here; in hope and prayer 
His wandering flock had gone before, 
But he, the shepherd, might not share 
Their sorrows on the wintry shore. 

Before the Speedwell's anchor swung, 
Ere yet the Mayflower's sail was spread, 
While round his feet the Pilgrims clung, 
The pastor spake, and thus he said:-- 

'Men, brethren, sisters, children dear! 
God calls you hence from over sea; 
Ye may not build by Haerlem Meer, 
Nor yet along the Zuyder-Zee. 

'Ye go to bear the saving word 
To tribes unnamed and shores untrod; 
Heed well the lessons ye have heard 
From those old teachers taught of God. 

'Yet think not unto them was lent 
All light for all the coming days, 
And Heaven's eternal wisdom spent 
In making straight the ancient ways; 

'The living fountain overflows 
For every flock, for every lamb, 
Nor heeds, though angry creeds oppose 
With Luther's dike or Calvin's dam.' 

He spake; with lingering, long embrace, 
With tears of love and partings fond, 
They floated down the creeping Maas, 
Along the isle of Ysselmond. 

They passed the frowning towers of Briel, 
The 'Hook of Holland's' shelf of sand, 
And grated soon with lifting keel 
The sullen shores of Fatherland. 

No home for these!--too well they knew 
The mitred king behind the throne;-- 
The sails were set, the pennons flew, 
And westward ho! for worlds unknown. 

And these were they who gave us birth, 
The Pilgrims of the sunset wave, 
Who won for us this virgin earth, 
And freedom with the soil they gave. 

The pastor slumbers by the Rhine,-- 
In alien earth the exiles lie,-- 
Their nameless graves our holiest shrine, 
His words our noblest battle-cry! 

Still cry them, and the world shall hear, 
Ye dwellers by the storm-swept sea! 
Ye _have_ not built by Haerlem Meer, 
Nor on the land-locked Zuyder-Zee!

On July 23, 1620, the English Pilgrms who had been living in the Netherlands, sailed on the Speedwell. They were heading towards Sothhampton where they would meet up with the Mayflower, and togther the two ships would sail for the New World.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (3/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

Images of African-Americans in Antebellum Era Art

All through the 1800s, White artists depicted African-Americans as anonymous figures in the background, as unimportant figures in a larger group – never as the main focus of the painting. They were shown as waiters or as poor rural folk who are content with their lot in life. While Joshua Johnson showed sophisticated African-Americans in portraits, White artists showed them as poor marginalized figures.

George Caleb Bingham, The County Election, 1852
Thomas Harrison Matteson, The Turkey Shoot, 1857
Eastman Johnson, Old Kentucky Home, 1859

All through the Antebellum Era, African-Americans were a side note in art – they were not given center stage until after the Civil War when pioneering artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner put them there.

Two Great Americans – and Four Great Freedoms

On January 6, 1941, with an eye towards the London blitz and German air raids, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a powerful speech in which he articulated his vision for a postwar world founded on four basic human freedoms. The speech was to encourage America to end its isolationism policy and join World War II. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was inspired by these words and visualized these freedoms in his own unique small-town neighborly way.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. “

“The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943.

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship, 1943

“The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, 1943

“The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943.

Two much loved, admired, and respected Americans – what an enduring legacy they have left for us to reflect upon.

Bread and Circus

The phrase beautifully describes how leaders in ancient Rome placated the masses with free food and entertainment – with these two things in plentiful, politicians managed to keep an overpopulated, hungry, and often angry citizenry pacified and unquestioning.

Bread and Circus was not provided for the benefit of the citizens or their overall well-being – rather it was a pragmatic solution to keep politicians in power. A well fed, well entertained population is unlikely to become a revolutionary force of any kind!!

2nd Century Roman poet and satirist Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis  (known as Juvenal in English) wrote this phrase in Satira X:

Nam qui dabat olim 
Imperium, fasces, legions, omnia, nunc se
Continet, atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
Panem et circenses
      For that sovereign people that once gave away
Military command, consulships, legions, and every thing,
  Now bridles its desires, and limits its anxious longings to two things only
bread and circuses

Here are some other gems that this little-known Roman satire genius wrote :

Orandum es tut sit mens sana incopore sano
Rather than for wealth, power or children, men should pray for a sound mind in a sound body 

Rara avis in terries nigroque simillima cycno 
A truly good person is a rare bird (like a black swan)
 
Quis custodiet Ipsos custode
Who will guard the guards?
             
Ques Custodiet Ipsos custodes?… found in Hongkong

Interesting how sometimes things stay relevant for centuries.