African-American depiction is monumental

Art And History


PUBLIC MONUMENTS ARE historical artifacts that literally become parts of our landscape.

But to Karen Lemmey of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, a mid-19th-century monument bearing the likeness of an African-American man deserves closer examination.

Lemmey will talk about the image and the monument it appears on in a lecture, The First African American on a Public Monument? H.K. Brown's "negro ... so truthfully rendered," at the National Gallery this month.

Considering the distortion of African-American images in art during that time, the appearance of this African-American on the monument to American statesman DeWitt Clinton struck Lemmey's curiosity.

Clinton, a former New York mayor and governor, is credited with the construction of the Erie Canal in 1817.

This was one of the first cast-bronze monuments in the United States. It was placed in 1853 at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Clinton was buried.

Sculptor Henry Kirke Brown shows Clinton atop a base that includes scenes depicting images of the various groups of people critical to the construction and use of the canal.

The African-American man appears on the front panel of the statue.

Lemmey, who has a doctorate in art history from the City University of New York and is an Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the National Gallery, took interest in the panel while researching Brown for her dissertation.

"I noticed that the central figure is an African-American, but it is a completely different vision of African-Americans than we see in post-Civil War work," she says. "To see a pre-Civil War example of a black man on a public monument led me to question, 'Who is he? Who is he meant to symbolize?'"

Brown's depiction during this period in history is a departure from other artists' work.

"Most of the images of African-Americans in American art of the 19th century were stereotypical," says Floyd Coleman, an art history professor at Howard University. "They wanted to make sure that black people remained in chains or certainly servile, to be pawns of American capitalism."

In Brown's depiction, however, the African-American man is standing.

He is also shirtless, barefoot, muscular and carrying a tobacco crate, imagery reminiscent of slavery.

"Even if he's not a slave himself, it's impossible not to look at him in 1853 and not make the connection to slavery," Lemmey says.

Nevertheless, what is out of the ordinary for Lemmey are the more definitive things about the African-American in the image.

"Aesthetically, this man is a departure: he's standing, he's central to the frame, he's not sleeping, he's not depicted in the vein of minstrels and he's not in a position of supplication; he's an active person, an active part of the commerce and wealth created by the Erie Canal," Lemmey says.

And he is not the only person on the panel hauling a crate. There are white men doing the same. There's a white man kneeling in front of him. And on either side of him are Native Americans and immigrants.

Lemmey points out that slavery was not yet abolished in New York during the construction of the Erie Canal, from 1817 to 1825. It ended in the state in 1827.

She says that slaves and free blacks living in New York at the time were among those who built the waterway.

"Obviously, Brown was trying to depict New York [state] as a whole. The people are anonymous but they all represent the community," Lemmey says. "The depiction of this [African-American] figure as central and active speaks volumes to the presence and role of African-Americans in New York."

What makes this man's image even more fascinating, says Lemmey, is that the Erie Canal was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Lemmey is researching the possibility that this image may also be the first of an African-American on a public monument.

"I would like for this to be ... discussed by other specialists in the field," she says.

....................... Karen Lemmey will give a lecture titled The First African American on a Public Monument? H. K. Brown's "negro ... so truthfully rendered" at 12:10 p.m. and 1:10 p.m. April 10 at the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington. For more information, go to / programs / lecture.shtm.

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