Size: 20¾ x 31½ inches
Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1861; ‘Black Victorians’ exhibition, Manchester and Birmingham, 2005-2006
Current owner: Heinz Collection, Washington D.C., U.S.A. (private)
Inspired and outraged by a visit he made to slave auction rooms in Richmond, Crowe commemorated the subject first in an engraved sketch which appeared in the Illustrated London News on 27 September 1856 (Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia), and then by this oil painting which was exhibited at the British Academy in 1861. The original sketch for Slaves Waiting for Sale, made on 3 March 1853, was published by Crowe in his book With Thackeray in America.
The appearance of the oil painting at the Royal Academy exhibition in May 1861 was marked by positive contemporary reviews. The reviewer in the Athenaeum of 11 May 1861 considered that ‘Mr. Eyre Crowe will advance his reputation considerably by No. 328, ‘Slaves waiting for Sale, Virginia’ [sic]… all [the figures are] remarkable for character and expression’.
The verdict of The Times (13 May 1861) was that ‘the stout, middle-aged negro to the right, looking eagerly, as if he scented a buyer in one of the loungers at the door, is particularly good in expression. These are truths of negro life’. The reaction of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (August 1861), was slightly less favourable: ‘Mr Crowe gives us another form of genre, capital in its way. “Slaves Waiting for Sale in Virginia”, broad in marked character, awkward in attitude, truth pushed to the verge of the grotesque.’
Macmillan’s magazine, July 1861, reviewed the painting as follows:
Mr. Eyre Crowe’s “Slaves waiting for sale,” (328), also shows advance in execution. The scene is the interior of a hut, where are several human “chattels” seated on a bench, waiting for the coming master; their expressions and characters are various, and given with much feeling and judgment. A sturdy negro, with his arms folded, is sullenly resigned; a negress nervously watches the door; one nurses a baby; a third holds her child, whose expression is almost comic, upon her knee. This is a solid and cleverly painted picture.
However, it was the Art Journal (New Series, Vol VII, 1861, p. 165) which gave greatest coverage to the painting:
An artist, hitherto comparatively unknown, has produced one of the most important pictures in the exhibition, and certainly the most promising work of the season, from among those that can be looked on as the apparently coming men of English Art. The subject of Mr. E. Crowe’s picture, No. 328, is ‘Slaves waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia’, and the appalling guilt of that accursed system was never more successfully depicted… [the expressions on the slaves’ faces] are powerful examples of a rare power in Art – that of successfully and discriminately representing the inward actuality and outward expression of phases of mental thought and human passion. This success Mr. Crowe has undoubtedly achieved, and he has also achieved another, although of mere secondary importance – the power of representing with facility and fulness feelings which he comprehends with distinctness… This quality of clear-sightedness Mr. Crowe has displayed in an eminent degree… and we leave this picture, with the confident expectation that the artist, although hitherto all but unknown, is able, if he will it, to make for himself a position in what Bacon called “the garden of great intellects”.
Looking back on the painting in the Art Journal in June 1864 (‘British Artists: their Style and Character – No. LXXIII – Eyre Crowe’, p.206), the reviewer considered that, ‘however skilfully painted such pictures may be, the subjects do not commend themselves either to the eye or the mind. Neither the colour not the features of the negro race can be associated with European notions of aesthetic beauty; and the system of slavery is too abhorrent to Englishmen to render a representation of it, especially in its most objectionable forms, acceptable’. He was unaware whether the painting, or any others of the slave paintings produced by Crowe, had been sold, but noted that he had since turned his paintbrush and his thoughts back to ‘their wonted channels’: scenes showing noted historical figures.
Slaves waiting for Sale is now held in the Heinz private collection in Washington D.C., United States, and has been cited in a number of recent books and exhibitions, among which are:
- Hills, Patricia. The Painters’ America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810-1910 (Praeger Publishers in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974)
- Johns, Elizabeth. American Genre Painting: the Politics of Everyday Life (Yale University Press, 1991)
- Lubin, David M. Picturing a Nation: art and social change in 19th century America (Yale University Press, 1994)
- McElroy, Guy C., Facing History: the Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940 (Bedford Arts, Publishers, in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1990); and in a review of this exhibition by Robert Hughes in Time magazine, 29 Jan 1990, p.51
- Marsh, Jan (ed.), Black Victorians: Black People in British Art, 1800-1900 (Lund Humphries, in association with Manchester Art Gallery, 2005)