Old Virginia Home

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Old Virginia Home
David Gilmour Blythe
Oil on canvas
20 3/4 x 28 3/4 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund

What do you think is the fate of the man walking away from this burning house? Old Virginia Home depicts an African American who has just broken free from the shackles that bound him to slavery. He escapes a ruined plantation with bits of chains still dangling from his ankle. In this way, the artist signifies the end of slavery’s hold. A Union flag flutters in the wind in the left background, representing a hopeful sign of freedom for slaves. In the right foreground, the name “Henry A. Wise” appears on a shattered barrel. Wise was the Virginia governor who oversaw the hanging of abolitionist John Brown in 1859, despite Northern pleas for his life. While the burning house in the painting may belong to Wise, the flames symbolize the destruction of the Confederacy itself, represented by Virginia, the oldest southern state.

Other, less optimistic, details represent lingering uncertainty about emancipation. Blythe does not depict the freed black man with dignity. He is painted as a stereotype, and appears beaten down, and close to giving up. This weak portrayal does not necessarily indicate Blythe’s own attitude toward African Americans. Instead, it reflects the fact that the artist, like many Northerners, believed African Americans faced an unknown future as they began their lives of freedom. What do you see happening in the upper part of the painting? How does this relate to slavery’s end? Symbols of the apocalypse—the biblical end of times—in the sky, including a symbolic figure of war and a raven signifying famine, further suggest fears for emancipated slaves.

1. Compare the representation of the freed slave in this painting to John Quincy Adams Ward’s The Freedman. How does each represent the uncertainty of the future for African Americans?

Further reading:
Chambers, Bruce. The World of David Gilmore Blythe. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press / National Collection of Fine Arts, 1981. Exhibition catalog.

Foner, Eric. “The Civil War and the Story of American Freedom.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 8-25 (plate 5, p. 21).

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