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Uncle Dick

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Uncle Dick

Artist: John O'Brien Inman (American, 1828-1896)

Date: 1863
Medium: Oil on canvas, with an original frame
Dimensions:
Framed: 25 1/2 × 22 1/2 × 3in. (64.8 × 57.2 × 7.6cm)
Overall: 17 x 14in. (43.2 x 35.6cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'J O'B Inman 1863'
Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. James F. Nields
Object number: 72.44
Label Text
This picture, painted the same year that President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared that "all persons held as slaves . . . shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free," seemingly reflects a set of social conventions the American Civil War sought to remedy. Presumably painted for a white, middle-class audience, the painting shows an elderly African-American man engaged in a menial domestic task polishing shoes. The picture was donated to the Museum in 1972 with the title it now has, but it is not known if this was the title the artist originally gave the picture.

Several details can help the viewer decide whether Inman sympathized with the conventional stereotype of a black man polishing his white master's shoes, or whether this picture has a more subversive message. For example, is the stone wall that is depicted in the work intended to suggest a domestic setting or a prison? Why does the figure's facial expression provide no clue to help the viewer understand whether the artist intended the figure to be seen as a "devoted Negro" in the tradition, for example, of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben? Finally, what role does the closed door at the right side of the composition play in the creation of this work's meaning? Moreover, if the door were open, what kind of scenery beyond the doorway would reinforce the meaning Inman intended this picture to convey?

Paul D. Schweizer

Inman's frame and the one on the Museum's Eastman Johnson painting (64.116) are examples of the style of frame made in the 1860s when the exuberant decorative motifs used on American frames during the pre-Civil War era were less popular. A simple fluted cove was the most characteristic feature of these more conservatively styled frames. In the cove, parallel incised lines, running at right angles to the frame's horizontal rails and vertical stiles provide a visual transition between the inner and outer decorative elements. In the case of Inman's frame, the incised lines guide the viewer's attention toward an inner liner decorated with delicate beading, a sanded frieze, and a running trefoil motif. Leaf (or flower) forms simultaneously cover the frame's diagonal corner joints and the seams where the cove's incised lines meet. The top corners of the frame's innermost liner features rounded corners, a decorative detail that began appearing in American frames at this time and may derive from the similarly shaped decorative mats used in daguerreotype cases beginning in the 1840s.1 Inman's painting extends under these corner elements, suggesting that he might not have this particular frame in mind when he painted this work.

Paul D. Schweizer
August 2010


Copyright
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