Specters of Democracy: Blackness and the Aesthetics of Politics in the Antebellum U.S.

By Ivy G. Wilson | Go to book overview

5 Framing the Margins
Geometries of Space and American Genre Painting

After strolling through the streets of Brooklyn in the early days of the new year of 1851, Walt Whitman found himself reminiscing about two particular images. He had just returned from viewing the exhibits at the Brooklyn Art Union, where he had offered a few opening remarks, and, as usual, America was on his mind. He wrote his impressions of the exhibit and of the paintings by the venerable William Sidney Mount and the younger Walter Libbey, in the February 1, 1851, issue of the New York Evening Post:

I returned, the other day, after looking at Mount’s last work—I think his best—of a
Long Island negro, the winner of a goose at a raffle; and though it certainly is a fine
and spirited thing, if I were to choose between the two, the one to hang up in my room
for my own gratification, I should take the boy with his flute. This, too, to my notion,
has a character of Americanism about it. Abroad, a similar subject would show the boy
as handsome, perhaps, but he would be a young boor, and nothing more. The stamp
of class is, in this way, upon all the fine scenes of the European painters, where the
subjects are of a proper kind; while in this boy of Walter Libbey’s, there is nothing to
prevent his becoming a President, or even the editor of a leading newspaper.1

Libbey’s boy embodied a national ethos—an ethos that, in Whitman’s estimation, exemplified the absence of the reified class structures he believed endemic to European societies and one where a newspaper editor was the ostensible equal of a president. Whitman, tongue-in-cheek and with no small gleam of subdued laughter to boot, perhaps saw a bit of himself in the young boy, especially as he himself had been a newspaper editor and, thus, in his mind’s eye, Libbey’s painting symbolized a figurative continuum of boys to men as a particular index of the nation. To be sure, when he spoke of a certain undeniable “character of Americanism,” Whitman was referring to the archetype of a boy playing a flute, which had a kind of national iconicity. And although the “Children of Adam” poems of Leaves of Grass were still several years away, Whitman’s assessment of Libbey’s painting intimates the sensory, if not erotic, pleasures of viewing the boy.

Whitman thought the painting by Mount, The Lucky Throw (1851), was “a fine and splendid thing,” but he also estimated that while the black subject might forever approximate a national identity, he certainly would not embody it to the degree that Libbey’s boy could. He conceded that the black subject in The Lucky Throw bore some evidence of an American character but stopped slightly short of the enthusiastic praise he bestowed on Libbey’s work: “Mount’s negro may be said to have a character of Americanism, too, but I must be pardoned for saying,

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