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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Ransom's John Brown Painting

by Robert S. Fletcher

November 1940 (Vol. 9, No. 4), pages 343 to 346.
Transcribed by lhn;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

THE original painting of "John Brown on His Way to Execution done by Louis L. Ransom and copied by Currier & Ives, is owned by Oberlin College. It now hangs in the Paul Lawrence Dunbar (Negro) High School in Washington, D. C., having been lent to the school by the college in April, 1919. [1]

Louis Liscolm Ransom, the painter, was born at Salisbury Corners, N. Y., January 23, 1831, the son of Merriman Munson Ransom and Olive Ann (Spencer) Ransom. [2] He early showed artistic aptitudes and in about his twentieth year friends contributed money to send him to New York to study. He was admitted to the school of the American Academy of Design where he worked for a year under the tutelage of Henry Peters Gray. Gray, the leading figure painter of his period, well-known at the time for his severally academic canvases of mythological and historical subjects, must have had a considerable influence on Ransom's style. [3]

Directories of Utica, N. Y., for 1857-1858, 1860-1861, and 18611862 indicate that Ransom had a studio in that city during those years. [4] He "had a profound admiration, something akin to veneration for old John Brown," whom he may have seen at the latter's home at North Elba. Sometime soon after Brown's death on December 2, 1859, Ransom painted at Utica his "John Brown on His Way to Execution." [5]

In the summer of 1863 P. T. Barnum exhibited the painting in his Museum in New York City. Throughout the week of Monday, May 18, to Saturday, May 23, he advertised:

At all hours every day and evening A VERY SPLENDID PAINTING BY LOUIS RANSOM, of Lansingburgh, N. Y. representing the celebrated JOHN BROWN, leaving the Charlestown (Va.) Jail on his way to execution.

(343)

344 KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

A VERY HAPPY LIKENESS OF THAT GREAT MAN; a satisfactory indorsement to his numerous friends and admirers. Also, THE LIVING SEA-LION, LIVING LEARNED SEAL, LIVING HAPPY FAMILY, GRAND AQUARIA, with its multitudes of beautiful Living Fish, LIVING MONSTER SNAKES, BEAR SAMSON &c., &c. Admission, 25 cents. Children under ten, 15 cents. [6]

George William Curtis saw it in the Museum and commented on it in his column, "The Lounger," in Harper's Weekly. He wrote in part:

It is one of the incidents that history will always fondly record and art delineate. The fierce and bitter judgment of the moment upon the old man is already tempered. Despised and forsaken in his own day, the heart of another generation may treat him as he treated the little outcast child. In the picture his head is conspicuous against the yellow ground of a flag which surrounds it like a halo. The eager officer by his side pushes the mother away, and the bedizened soldier in the fore-ground scowls at her. The fussy parade which the authorities made at his execution is admirably suggested by these figures, and however sharply the work might be criticized by the connoisseur, there is a solemnity and pathos in it which is wanting in many a finer painting. [6]

Barnum was forced by the draft rioters of July 13-16 to withdraw the painting from exhibition in order to save the Museum from destruction at their hands. [8]

Apparently the canvas was never sold. Being of large proportions (7 x 10 feet) it required a considerable wall space for proper hanging. Ransom moved with his family to Akron, Ohio, in 1884 and soon after decided that it would be appropriate to give it to Oberlin College because of that institution's well-known antislavery history. The deed of transfer to the college, dated July 8, 1886, is in the files of the Oberlin College treasurer. "In consideration of the sum of one dollar," it reads, "I [Louis Ransom] hereby sell and transfer to the Trustees of Oberlin College my picture which represents John Brown meeting the slave mother and her child on his way to Execution." [9]

The most important document relating to this painting is a small broadside (53/4 x 8 inches) entitled A Rare Picture. [10] It is anonymous and undated but must have been issued by Oberlin College in

FLETCHER: RANSOM'S JOHN BROWN PAINTING 345

1886. What makes this broadside most significant is the strong probability that Mr. Ransom, himself, collaborated in its preparation. It is here quoted in full:

An historical painting of heroic size and Striking merits, by Mr. Louis Ransom, of Akron, formerly of Utica, N. Y., has just been presented to Oberlin College.

The picture represents "John Brown of Ossawatomie" emerging from the prison on his way to execution. There are seven other figures. In the foreground, descending the steps, is a slaveholder,-- type of the slave power,-of commanding proportions, and face not devoid of culture, but Strongly marked by passion and a domineering Spirit. He is dressed for the occasion in the uniform of one of the Virginia "crack companies" of militia, which happens to be that worn by the minions of European despotism, and whose gorgeous trappings fitly symbolize the "pride which cometh before destruction."

Seated on the stone balustrade is the slave-mother and her child, already immortalized in the verse of Whittier. The artist does not spare slavery here. He answers the oft repeated Sneer at the abolitionists, "Would you wish your daughter to marry a nigger?" by the mute appeal of this half white slave woman, with a child lighter than herself. The little fellow, born to life-long servitude, frightened by the soldier, turns up to her a bright Anglo-Saxon face.

Further back is a contemptible little "overseer" or hired slave-driver, parading in militia uniform, who forgets his assumed soldierly bearing, and reverts to his true character, in his unseemly rush to push the "nigger woman" out of the way. In this rapid movement he causes a yellow silk ensign which he carries to swell out so that the sunlight falling upon a portion of it forms a background and a halo for the head of John Brown.

Brown's is, of course, the central figure. Standing on the upper Step he overtops all others, calm and dignified, with the bearing of one altogether assured of the final triumph of his cause. His eyes are upon the little child.

Above his head, upon the silken banner, are the arms of Virginia, a conqueror trampling upon his prostrate foe, and the motto "Sic Semper Tyrannis." The terrible irony of that motto, on that occasion, drives home to every beholder the question, "Who is the tyrant, who the conqueror?"

The jailor, in civilian's clothes, stands beside Brown in the doorway, and a friend also accompanies him.

In the background a member of some other militia company wears in the service of oppression the uniform of the old "Continentals."

In one corner of the picture, among neglected rubbish, is seen a mutilated and discarded statue of Justice.

The technical execution of the picture is worthy of the bold composition. It was painted at the time, and narrowly escaped the violence of a mob when first exhibited in New York City. Mr. Ransom, the artist, is now at the meridian of his powers, and has revised the painting so that it embodies both the enthusiasm of his earlier and the maturer judgment of his later years.

Historical painting has been too little cultivated in America, and the rarity of such works renders this picture a special credit to its author, and a special acquisition to the College, and to the country.

346 KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

The John Brown painting was first placed in the lobby of Oberlin's then-new main recitation building, Peters hall, where it hung for many years. Later it was removed to an upper floor of the same building, where it was relegated to an obscure position in the physics laboratory." The Prudential committee consented to lend it to the Dunbar High School in 1919 on the grounds that it was so large that no suitable place was available at Oberlin for hanging it. [12] It was stretched but never framed, at least not since 1886. In 1919 it was removed from the stretcher and rolled for shipment to Washington and was never stretched again. It is, of course, badly cracked, as the photograph shows, and the canvas is somewhat rotten. [13]

Comparison shows certain differences between the painting and the 1863 lithograph. The more effective treatment of Brown's face in the painting probably represents the inadequate craftsmanship of the lithographer rather than the painter's "revision" mentioned in the broadside. The nearly Greek features of Ransom's slave mother represent a subtler conception than the wholly African head substituted, apparently intentionally, in the lithograph. Such refinements perhaps would not have appealed to the wide public Currier & Ives usually reached. According to the recollection of the painter's son the "mother was always a light quadroon and the baby a shade lighter" and the only repainting was of the highlights in the mother's dress. Some retouching was done because of a tear in the canvas but this did not affect the general appearance of the picture. [14]

Notes

1. Ms. minutes of the Prudential committee of Oberlin College, April 11, 1919, office of the secretary. This title was furnished by the painter's son, Eugene Ransom. see James C. Malin, "The John Brown Legend in Pictures," The Kansas Historical Quarterly, v. VIII (November, 1939), pp. 339-341.
2. Wyllys Cadwell Ransom, Historical Outline of the Ransom Family of America (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1903), pp. 358, 359. Reference furnished by Dr. Harlow Lindley, secretary of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society.
3. William Howe Downes, "Henry Peters Gray," Dictionary of American Biography, v. VII, pp. 517, 518.
4. Information from directories furnished by Laure Claire Foucher, librarian of the Utica Public Library.
5. This and much other information was famished by Eugene Ransom, 841 School Avenue, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, son of the painter, in a letter to the author dated July 8, 1940, and indirectly from the same source in a letter from Charlotte Gowing Cooper, Columbus, Ohio, dated July 9, 1940.
6. New York (N. Y.) Times, May 18-23, 1863. This advertisement gave way the next week to one of Gen. Tom Thumb.
7. Harper's Weekly, New York, June 13, 1863, v. VII, p. 371. Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1850-1865 (Cambridge, Mass., 1938), p. 471, makes it clear that Curtis personally wrote this column at the time.
8. statement by Eugene Ransom, supported by the broadside quoted in the text below.
9. Ransom executed many portraits of New Yorkers and Ohioans. A portrait of John R. Buchtel, founder of Buchtel College, was destroyed in a college fire. Several of his other paintings are believed to have been destroyed by the burning of his second wife's home in California, but some of them may be in a storage house in Los Angeles. His paintings may be identified by the initials "LR" superimposed to form a monogram. He died at the home of his son in Cuyahoga Falls, September, 1926. He is buried at Salisbury, N. Y. His son, Eugene Ransom, possesses four family portraits done by him in his later years.
10. There are two copies in the library of Oberlin College.
11. Information from Prof. Raymond H. Stetson, Oberlin College.
12. Minutes of Prudential committee, April 11, 1919.
13. The author first wrote on the painting in an article entitled "John Brown and Oberlin" in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, February, 1932.
14. Letter from Eugene Ransom to the author, August 9, 1940.