First, it should be noted that Eastman Johnson was a white artist who painted a variety of scenes from African American communities among other scenes from the Civil War and mid-19th Century America. A Ride For Liberty marked a shift in some of his previous art when he had painted an impression of a “happy plantation” in the work entitled Negro Life at the Old South, or Old Kentucky Home. In reality, Johnson had painted a scene that he saw behind his father’s home in Washington D.C. and freedmen served as the models for his art. His contemporary art critics offered two ways of viewing that painting. First, it supported the “happy plantation” myth. Second, it predicted the fall of slavery, illustrated by the dilapidated structure in the background. That painting appeared in 1859.
About two years later, Johnson created A Ride For Liberty—an entirely different story on canvas. The smiling, musical scene of “Old Kentucky” is gone. In its place comes a scene of energy, fright, courage, and a determination of a young family to take matters into their own hands and ride for liberty. Again, Johnson painted a scenario that he had seen firsthand.
On the reverse side of his masterpiece, Johnson noted: “a veritable incident of the Civil War seen by myself at Centerville in the morning of McClelland’s advance to Manassas, March 2, 1862.” This really happened.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the names of the father, mother, and two children who made the ride from bondage to seek freedom within the Union army’s lines. We can only presume that they were received and likely sent to join other “contraband.”
Artistically, Johnson’s painting inspired by a morning at Centerville marked a powerful shift and reflected the historic happenings in America. The Civil War offered better chances for escape and freedom than ever before, especially as Union armies advanced and later once the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. Some enslaved took the opportunity to escape bondage into their own hands and created their own journey to freedom.
In Harold Holzer and Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s book analyzing Civil War art and its reflections of feelings and culture described the painting and Johnson’s motives in these words:
“. . . here [in contrast to his previously argued pro-slavery painting] created the artist’s visual equivalent of abolitionist literature, an Uncle Tom’s Cabin in oils. About all the viewer can surmise s the nobility of the woman, the innocence of the child, and the responsible seriousness of the husband and father determined to free himself and his family from the horrors of slavery. Like much antislavery propaganda, Johnson’s painting aimed at the sentimental bull’s-eye of the nineteenth-century American heart: the family. The blacks escape as a family unit, not as dislocated, unpredictable, hopeless, or dangerous individuals.”
They seek freedom as a family, ready to build a new life for themselves. The painting struck a chord with the Northern public. Johnson received commissions to create at least two more paintings of this art.
With A Ride For Liberty, Johnson upended the idea which he had once reflected in his previous work. Slavery was not happy, and given the opportunity, this enslaved family was willing to risk all to get out of the “peculiar institution.” Significantly, no one is helping this family; they are making the journey of their own accord—another break from other 19th Century art which tended to depict African Americans as calm and cheerful in bondage or in the shadow of whites in the artwork. Instead, this family of four commands the viewer’s attention, making us wonder about the real family who inspired this painting. Making us reflect on our perceptions of slavery. Helping us value the stories of those who found ways to create and take their own journey to freedom.
Holzer, Harold and Mark E. Neely, Jr. Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: The Civil War in Art. (Orion Books, New York, 1993). Pages 246-248.