The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis, Missouri, c. 1880
Thomas Satterwhite Noble is actually one of the first American painters to show and picture a slave auction.
Alysha Page, doctoral candidate in African American History at Howard University and Bechhoefer Graduate Intern in American Art at the National Gallery.
He’s a veteran of the Confederate Army, a member of a slave-owning family and an artist who painted the history relating to slavery and the fight for freedom.
Set on the steps of the same St. Louis Courthouse where Dred Scott lost his fight for freedom, Noble depicts the city’s last sale of enslaved people.
The portrayal of the biracial woman cradling a baby at center, along with the other families about to be sold, is often discussed in terms of the artist’s attempt to elicit sympathy from the white audience that would view this painting. And this work did establish Noble’s anti-slavery reputation.
But Alysha Page sees something more equivocal in the picture. For example, the way Noble has included himself, his wife, and his child in the painting.
Over to the right you see his family in grand outfits not jeering in frustration or yelling in protest, but looking calmly, ambivalently, at what is actually a horrible brutality of these families that are being torn apart, so that’s why I would caution viewers to remember the context of this painting.
These were people’s bodies and their lives being sold, and in this image you see people not in horror. They are used to this kind of brutality, and Noble paints it in a very controlled, romanticized way, and I think that is why he has this moniker of the “reconstructed rebel” because he was a Confederate soldier, and now he’s painting Black people, and I don’t think that one equals the other, that a man painting Black people means that he cares about the plight of the people pictured.