Contraband Guides

Race, Transatlantic Culture, and the Arts in the Civil War Era

By (author) Paul H. D. Kaplan

Hardback - £75.95

Publication date:

09 July 2020

Length of book:

312 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271083858

In his best-selling travel memoir, The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain punningly refers to the black man who introduces him to Venetian Renaissance painting as a “contraband guide,” a term coined to describe fugitive slaves who assisted Union armies during the Civil War. By means of this and similar case studies, Paul H. D. Kaplan documents the ways in which American cultural encounters with Europe and its venerable artistic traditions influenced nineteenth-century concepts of race in the United States.

Americans of the Civil War era were struck by the presence of people of color in European art and society, and American artists and authors, both black and white, adapted and transformed European visual material to respond to the particular struggles over the identity of African Americans. Taking up the work of both well- and lesser-known artists and writers—such as the travel writings of Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, the paintings of German American Emanuel Leutze, the epistolary exchange between John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton, newspaper essays written by Frederick Douglass and William J. Wilson, and the sculpture of freed slave Eugène Warburg—Kaplan lays bare how racial attitudes expressed in mid-nineteenth-century American art were deeply inflected by European traditions.

By highlighting the contributions people of black African descent made to the fine arts in the United States during this period, along with the ways in which they were represented, Contraband Guides provides a fresh perspective on the theme of race in Civil War–era American art. It will appeal to art historians, to specialists in African American studies and American studies, and to general readers interested in American art and African American history.

“Both a creative and a fastidious scholar, Paul Kaplan aims to shed fresh light on the dialogue concerning race, nationalism, and representation. In this well-argued volume, he deftly weaves together travel writing by Americans abroad becoming aware of Africans in Europe; racial representations by the talented mixed-race Louisiana sculptor Eugène Warburg and the German American painter Emanuel Leutze; a dialogue on racial matters between two major intellectuals, Charles Norton and John Ruskin; and the relevance of the Old European Masters whose racial representations made an impact on African Americans.”

—Patricia Hills, author of Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence