An 1861 painting from British artist Eyre Crowe captures the anxiety before a sale.

By Image of the Black in Western Art Archive in

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

In May of 1861, a strikingly original painting was exhibited at the annual show of the Royal Academy in London.

Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia, 1861. Oil on canvas, by Eyre Crowe. Collection of Teresa Heinz.

Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia, 1861. Oil on canvas, by Eyre Crowe. Collection of Teresa Heinz.

The artist, Eyre Crowe, presented the public with a candid vision of the institution of slavery in the United States: A group of eight black women and young children sit within the dusky interior of a slave sale room. At right, a man is seated separately, his arms tightly folded, with a sober, even angry, look on his face. Behind the main group stands the auctioneer, who looks toward the doorway at the left. Three men have stopped there and seem to be discussing their prospects within. Outside flies a red flag, always put out when a slave sale was proceeding….

[Crowe] had published several other images related to slavery in the British popular press, as well as another painting showing slaves being transported to their new owners by rail. All of these images were based on his direct experience of the “peculiar institution” gained as an assistant to the popular British author William Makepeace Thackeray on an extended speaking tour along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in 1852-53.

Along the way, he made sketches of his travels. Supplemented by notes from a diary kept during the trip, these formed the basis for a vivid impression of North-South distinctions in the former colonies just before the Civil War. While Thackeray maintained a reserve discrete from the slavery question, Crowe explored it with keen interest.

Fired by his reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s just-released Uncle Toms Cabin, and having seen advertisements for slave sales in the Richmond, Va., paper, on the morning of March 3, 1853, he ventured into two of the many slave-auction rooms along Wall Street.

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