May 2024


The Complicated and Enduring Legacy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 19th Century Art

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

In the nineteenth century Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin ranked as the number two global bestseller, outsold only by the Bible. In 1852 Stowe sold 10,000 copies of her anti-slavery novel in the United States in its first week of its publication, 300,000 in the first year, and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. The book was a phenomenon, and its author became an international celebrity. 

The cultural impact of Stowe’s work is the subject a new exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art; it explores the way the literary work inspired a wide array of visual images on both sides of the Atlantic that helped to shape the complicated, often controversial context of Stowe’s novel. The Book of Two Hemispheres: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United State and Europe offers a collection of more than thirty engravings, sculptures, sheet music, literary editions, and popular mass culture items like trading cards that provide glimpses into the pervasiveness imprint of Stowe’s work on the popular psyche.


Harriet Beecher Stowe had a deep connection to the town of Brunswick, Maine.  She came there in 1850 as the wife of Calvin Stowe, who had been appointed Professor of Divinity at his alma mater, Bowdoin College. It was in Brunswick’s  First Paris Congregational Church, seated in the family pew 23 one Sunday, that Harriet experienced the vision of an enslaved man’s death by beating which prompted her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Thus, the quiet Maine town of Brunswick with its strong Abolitionist sensibilities became the novel’s birthplace.  The Stowe family - Harriet, Calvin, and six children (her infant son had died in 1849) -  lived in Brunswick for several years in a stately house at 63 Federal Street, and when Harriet set about to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin she rented a room in another home at 28 College Street where she could retreat from the chaos of her domestic situation and write in relative peace.

The intellectual and cultural climate that nurtured Stowe’s novel had deep roots in the anti-slavery movement; Brunswick served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad, of which the Stowe House was used as a station, and played host to fiery Abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s brother, who delivered his sermons from the pulpit of the First Parish Church.

But while Stowe, herself, asserted that her novel was a passionate plea to end slavery, a plea which none other than President Abraham Lincoln praised as a rallying cry for Emancipation, from the very first days of the book’s publication, controversy swirled around its 266 pages.  The opposition from the slaveholding South was to be expected; Stowe’s Abolitionist stance was anathema to them.  But from the first and in an ever-growing chorus of dissatisfaction, voices were raised in criticism of what some felt were racist overtones in the novel. Stowe’s characters were too stereotypical; her black characters, especially Uncle Tom, were too passive, too accepting of their cruel fate, too eager to please those in power. Others, like Topsy were trivialized and foolish.  The spectrum of white characters did include the hated villain Simon Legree, but it also included the saintly Little Eva and the well-meaning plantation owner, Augustine St. Clare. 

While Stowe’s narrative was fueled by her anti-slavery sentiments, it was also deeply influenced by her Christianity and some of the problematic depictions of character stem from this idealized vision of a saintly, martyred enslaved hero like Uncle Tom and a belief that bonds of affection and loyalty can exist between master and slave.  This idealized nineteenth century view of race relations, while clearly falling short of reality, proved a powerful emotional tool that Stowe used to move those in power – to convince the white hierarchy that emancipation was the MORAL choice, the Christian choice, the righteous path toward equality. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not offer solutions to the complicated issues of race in America, yet it remains, if taken in context, as a radical rallying cry against human enslavement.  The novel inspired countless artistic responses in its day – some exploring the themes of freedom and equality; others aimed at a more mass appeal that popularized characters or scenes from the novel in songs - mass images like trading cards, logos, medallions.  Suffice it to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a household name, and the characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin became part of American and European cultural tradition.


The exhibit offers a look at some of the contemporary responses to Stowe’s work, as well as some notable European antecedents addressing the issue of slavery. Several images predate Stowe’s novel but illustrate the climate in which she was writing. An 1788 engraving by Citoyenne Rollet (after The Execrable Human Traffic, a painting by George Morland)  depicts a father on the West Coast of Africa being abducted by enslavers in front of his wife and children.  The engraver, clearly inspired by the French Revolution, adds her own caption damning the slave trade which the French Republic abolished in 1794.

An 1808 engraving by Joseph Collyer the Younger after Henry Moses Commemorates the abolition of the slave trade in the British-occupied Caribbean .Allegorical figures of Britain, Justice, and Religion, as well as a nod to William Wilberforce, who led the parliamentary effort, by depicting his bust in the composition. This emphasis is on the role the white British Establishment played in ending the abomination of slavery with little credit given to grassroots resistance in the Caribbean.


Notable, however, among these early works is John Sartan’s 1841 engraving after Nathaniel Jocelyn depicting Senghe Pieh, known by his Europeanized name Joseph Cinque, who led a slave revolt aboard the Spanish vessel La Amistad. When mainstream Philadelphia newspapers attempted to suppress the image, black abolitionist Robert commissioned the engraving to help raise support for the plight of African captives by reaching a mass audience. The noble, imposing portrait of Pieh is a rare image of a Black man that is nuanced and individualized, as well as symbolic.


Josiah Wedgewood of pottery fame produced a medallion in 1787 for Thomas Clarkson’s anti-slavery society advocating for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.  The artist, William Hackwood, depicts a mostly nude  African man shackled at ankles and wrists, kneeling in supplication with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” inscribed around him.  The black figure on the white background makes a stark and powerful contrast.


The images in the exhibition created after publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are among the most affecting. There are two classical style bas reliefs (1870), sculpted by the Italian artist Lot Torelli, who worked in Florence and was associated with American expatriates there. One portrays Little Eva teaching Uncle Tom to read and the other the vision of Little Eva as an angel that appears to Tom after the child’s death.  Both key scenes from the novel, Torelli’s work uses the clean, simple lines of Neo Classicism and the white marble which serves as a cool, pure medium to add gravitas to the subjects.

Similar works in the Neo-Classical style are the two busts of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The first created in 1857, when the sitter was 46 years old, by British sculptor Susan Durant elevates Mrs. Stowe to an heroic realm with her ivy crown, while it maintains her womanhood -wife/mother- with the cameo of her husband which she wears. The second, created in 1893  by Anne Whitney, shows Stowe at age 82 still seeming remarkably untouched by time. Clearly both artists are immortalizing the spirit of the woman in these idealized forms.


The eye-catching highlight of the exhibition is William Gale’s 1856 large scale oil painting entitled The Captured Runaway. Influenced by European Romanticism and history painting and American genre artists, Gale depicts a mulatto woman captured by a bounty hunter.  Her wide-eyed, beseeching gaze and supplicating pose elicits the viewer’s sympathy. Gale’s painting, like Stowe’s novel, is a powerful response to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

Other items in the exhibit bear witness to the widespread cultural influence of Stowe’s novel.  A case contains some of the many editions of the work including translations into French,, Spanish, Dutch. Another British edition with illustrations influenced by caricature artist George Cruikshank depicts the characters, especially the African -Africans, in a stereotypical manner with exaggerated physical
features.  It demonstrates how these distorted images sadly set the tone for portraying African-Americans for many years to come in art, film, and media.

Some works demonstrate the mass appeal of Stowe’s book and the commercialization of her characters and themes. Two late 19th century prints bear only a loose association to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet the novel is referenced.  Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom at Home in Kentucky (from Century Illustrated Magazine) reflect the post-Civil War tendency to romanticize the Old South and make exotic the African-American traditions there. We feel the awkward antecedents of Stephen Foster’s songs or American minstrelsy in this take on  Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


Other mass appeal images include a large collection of cartes de visite and trading cards. An 1878 visiting card by photographer Samuel M. Fassett of Frederick Douglass treats the subject with respect and dignity. Its dignity and gravitas are in sharp contrast to the trading cards with scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These cards were used to advertise not only productions of the stage adaptation of the novel but also minstrel plays in which Stowe’s characters, like Topsy and
Ophelia, were sometimes inserted as slapstick figures who amplified racist stereotypes and flew directly against the grain of Stowe’s message.


One final 1866 image, an engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie after Francis Bicknell Carpenter, illustrates the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet. Formal in composition and layered with a sense of historic nobilitas, the composition pays tribute to President Lincoln’s achievement in navigating the perilous road to emancipation.  Henry Ward Beecher is one of the notables whose likeness appears in the assemblage.  The work in meant as a victory celebration of a goal Harriet Beecher Stowe so passionately espoused.  What is important – and disconcerting – to note is that the work focuses on the white statesmen involved in the watershed moment. And this focus reveals the thought-provoking truth made visible in this exhibit.

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much of the art and narrative surrounding the abolition of slavery in America was created from a white perspective.  This is not to diminish the profundity of achievement Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was, nor to discredit Stowe or her Abolitionist associates for painting a picture of America’s great evil through white eyes. But as sweeping, powerful, far-reaching, and transformative  as Stowe’s story has been, it is an incomplete narrative. In an exhibition filled with intriguing images, it is those who are invisible  that speak the loudest.

The Book of Two Hemispheres: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United States and Europe runs until June 2, 2024 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME


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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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