Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1861 Visualising Race

Paintings depicting racial difference had always featured at the Summer Exhibition. But in 1861, a particularly remarkable range of images of racialised bodies populated the walls of the Royal Academy. These included: Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia; Richard Ansdell, Hunted Slaves; William Holman Hunt, The Lantern-Maker’s Courtship; Frederick Goodall, The First Born; Edward Armitage, Pharaoh’s Daughter; Albert Moore, The Mother of Sisera; Simeon Solomon, A Young Musician Employed in the Temple Service during the Feast of Tabernacles; and J.F. Lewis, A Bedouin Sheikh–Egypt. Of these images, only one was painted by an ethnic minority artist, Solomon, whose Jewish origins were referenced in the majority of reviews of his work.

Explore the 1861 catalogue

The first battles of the American Civil War had taken place in April 1861. Slavery, and discussions of the significance of racial difference, became a renewed matter of public interest. Notably, two monumental paintings exhibited at the Exhibition, Richard Ansdell’s Hunted Slaves (Fig. 1) and Eyre Crowe’s Slaves Waiting for the Sale (Fig. 2) took the human consequences of slavery in America as their subject.

Discussions of race abounded in reviews of the 1861 Summer Exhibition, and were not limited to images of people of colour; the ethnic identity of white British people was equally under scrutiny. Critics readily connected images to contemporary racial thought; one reviewer, for example, poking fun at “Mr Disraeli’s Caucasian theory of race” in a brief aside on Philip Calderon’s Liberating Prisoners on the Young Heir’s Birthday.1 Critics were particularly keen to emphasise racial difference in the work of ethnic minority artists. The Jewish genre painter Abraham Solomon was lambasted for depicting a French servant with “the intense and ever-recurring vulgarity of that dirty, vulgar, Jewish servant-girl”, a comment which made noxious connections between Judaism, immorality, class, and dirt, and enforced the idea that a Jewish artist could not convincingly paint Christian characters.2

Critics laboured over labelling the ethnic identities of sitters of colour, making apparent the imprecise messiness of racial categories (despite their “scientific” taxonomical claims). The mother figure in Goodall’s painting First Born was described variously as “Hebrew”, “Egyptian”, and “Nubian”; naming racial difference mattered to these critics, but they could not agree on her racial identity.3 Fanny Eaton, a Jamaican-born mixed race woman, who regularly modelled for the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1860s, and who appeared in Albert Moore’s painting The Mother of Sisera, and also exhibited in 1861, occupied a similarly fluid visual racial identity. She was a generic “Other”, described by reviewers as an “Arab” in Moore’s work, but appearing in other paintings as an Indian, Jewish, and African character.4 Eaton’s repeated appearance in paintings at the Summer Exhibition throughout the 1860s in different ethnic guises arguably makes a mockery of the purported essentially “visible” nature of race.5

British pride at having abolished slavery (despite having derived huge profit from it) meant that some critics condemned the very depiction of slavery in Ansdell and Crowe’s paintings as an affront to British national sensibilities, and an inappropriate subject for art.6 Alternatively, critics used the paintings to reflect upon British moral superiority over “the despicable … whipper-snapper, fire-eating, soul-driving Yankees”.7 Some critics commented on the impressive range of emotions shown on the faces of the enslaved people for sale in Crowe’s painting, praising its truth and authenticity, and noting the drama and horror of Ansdell’s image.8 Other reviewers dwelt on the perceived inaccuracies of the attempts at rendering black skin, or Ansdell’s fame as an animal painter.9 The enslaved people on canvas were further dehumanised in these reviews.

Racist hierarchies of beauty meant that for some critics the very act of representing people of colour presented a challenge to aesthetic conventions.10 According to The Art-Journal’s critic, returning to the subject of Crowe’s Slaves for Sale in 1864, “Neither the colour nor the features of the negro race can be associated with European notions of aesthetic beauty.”11 Crowe’s painting, and presumably other images of black people, were considered works of scientific, rather than artistic interest. Such responses make the fact that the walls of the 1861 Summer Exhibition abounded with images of people of colour—apparent threats to beauty—even more noteworthy. Artists and the Academy—if not critics—evidently saw some merit in depicting such apparently “un-aesthetic” subjects.  

The Summer Exhibition was just one of many places to encounter people who had been racialised as “Other” in 1860s London. In addition to a substantial population of Londoners of African, South Asian, and Jewish heritage, these included commercial exhibitions of living peoples, static tableaux of plaster-models of people at popular leisure destinations like the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.12 For some visitors, the stagey nature of Ansdell’s Hunted Slaves might recall these commercial tableaux, imbricating art viewing at the Summer Exhibition with a range of forms of entertainment, which also served to establish and police racial difference.

Although such images presented stereotypical visions and were received with racist commentary, they might also be one means of reclaiming certain lost histories of Britons of colour.13 Although Goodall, Holman Hunt, and Crowe harped on the ethnographic authenticity that travel to Cairo, Jerusalem, and Virginia conferred upon their paintings, most of the images exhibited in 1861 were painted in Britain, working with models from the substantial resident black, South Asian, and Jewish populations.14 A black man features in the crowd waving off emigrants in O’Neil’s The Parting Cheer, part of the London population, not an incomer. The sight of these models on the walls of the Academy was testimony to their presence in, and contribution to, mid-Victorian culture.

The Summer Exhibition did not just reflect broader social mores, it actively made them the subject of conversation, creating opportunities for critics and viewers to consider how images of enslaved people related to paintings of Egyptian Lantern Makers, Jewish musicians, Cornish children, and destitute urban crowds. As historians of race have argued, what constitutes race is culturally specific and ever-shifting. Mid-Victorian conceptions of race were increasingly based on visual differences.15 In this context, visual art on public display had a significant role to play in establishing ideas about racial difference—and the notion that such a thing existed at all.

  1. “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 11 May 1861, 635.↩︎

  2. “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 635.↩︎

  3. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 25 May 1861, 497; Dry Point, “Royal Academy”, The Spectator, 18 May 1861, 531; Frederick George Stevens, “Royal Academy”, Macmillan’s Magazine, 1 July 1861, 210; “Royal Academy Exhibition”, Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 25 May 1861, 532; “The Royal Academy and the Water-Colour Societies,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1 August 1861, 216.↩︎

  4. “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 18 May 1861, 666.↩︎

  5. See Jan Marsh (ed.), Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800–1900 (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2005), 192.↩︎

  6. James Dafforne, “British Artists: Their Style and Character”, The Art-Journal, 1 July 1864, 207; “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 497; “The Royal Academy and the Water-Colour Societies”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 214.↩︎

  7. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 1 June 1861, 165.↩︎

  8. “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 11 May 1861, 636; “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Art-Journal, 166; Stevens, “Royal Academy”, 213.↩︎

  9. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, Saturday Review, 18 May 1861, 503; “Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 25 May 1861, 497.↩︎

  10. Similar criticism had been raised earlier in 1861 at the French sculptor Charles Cordier’s “Ethnographical Gallery of Sculpture, illustrating the most prominent Types of the Human Race” on Pall-Mall. See “Fine Arts: Cordier’s Ethnographical Sculpture”, The Illustrated London News, 2 February 1961, 94.↩︎

  11. Dafforne, “British Artists”, 207.↩︎

  12. See Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Chapter 1.↩︎

  13. See further Jan Marsh, “The Black Presence in British Art 1800–1900: Introduction and Overview”, in Jan Marsh (ed.), Black Victorians, 12–22.↩︎

  14. Frederick Goodall, The Reminiscences of Frederick Goodall RA (London: Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1902), Chap. 4; William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1905), Chaps 14 and 15; Eyre Crowe, “Sketching at a Slave Auction”, Household Words, 14 February 1857, 153–156.↩︎

  15. See further Tim Barringer, “Images of Otherness and the Visual Production of Difference: Race and Labour in Illustrated Texts, 1850–1865”, in Shearer West (ed.), The Victorians and Race (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996), 34–52; Lynda Nead, “The Secret of England’s Greatness”, Journal of Victorian Culture, 19 (2014): 161–182.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1861 catalogue