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Images of Blacks in Harper's Weekly

[ News images | Political Cartoons | Blackville ]


Harper's Weekly was a New York based newspaper in the last half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In weekly issues, Harper's presented a mixture of news stories, gossip, poetry, and most notably, wood-engraved illustrations. These pictures remain one of the best sources for lively, informative images of nineteenth-century America. Before photography developed as a viable medium for mass publication of images, engravings made from artists' sketches relayed news of both the everyday and the extraordinary to newspaper and magazine audiences. Where that news concerned black people, the related prints continue to inform modern audiences about the arrangement of people in places of the late nineteenth century. Originally issued in large numbers, few images from Harper's have survived in good condition. Those that do continue to be interesting, historical and very collectible prints.

All prints are wood engravings published in New York in issues of Harper's Weekly. All are in very good condition, except as noted.

News Images

A Cotton Blockade at Meridian, Mississippi

An Interesting Pair of images by Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast. "Arrival of a Federal Column at a Planter's House in Dixie." From Harper's Weekly, April 4. 1863. 11 x 15 1/2 (sheet). Wood engraving.

Thomas Nast. "'An Incident of General Sherman's March Through Georgia,' From a Picture by T. Nast, in the New York Exhibition." From The Illustrated London News, October 20, 1866. 11 x 15 3/4 (sheet). Wood engraving by William Luson Thomas.

This pair of similar images composes a striking example of one of America's most well-known late 19th century artists. As an illustrator, Nast (1840-1920) achieved artistic renown during the Civil War, and later as the creator of our conception of Santa Claus. These two images, however, show Nast's changing perspective on the war, evolving view of the enslaved, and developing skill as a painter. With the earlier image Harper's, while stating "the picture explains itself," attached an extract from a Union officer's letter stating enslaved "in huge numbers, men, women, and children, come and evince the most comical and unsophisticated manifestations of delight at our appearance. The older ones bow, and grin, and scrape, and throw themselves into all sorts of the most ludicrous attitudes. The younger ones dance and frisk about in high glee," adding "[t]hese poor creatures are about all the friends we have in this region. They most willingly give all the information they have."

In 1865, reworking the image as an oil painting for an exhibit at the National Academy of Design, Nast titled it "General Sherman's March through Georgia—his Advance arriving at a Plantation," as though it represented a more recent occurrence. Here the blacks are rendered much less stereotypically, as to both mien and behavior, while the disdain of the Southern ladies of the house toward the Federals carries from the earlier work to the later. The image is altered and expanded in order to show captured rebels, a distance altered from hills to a river, an elaborately uniformed Zouave having the most prominent placement, and a black child presenting a nosegay of flowers to the Union drummer boy. As Harper's New Monthly Magazine described it, "The contrast of the group of officers and ladies with that of the soldiers and slaves is most effective. The eye steals away between them to the fields and river meadows beyond, covered with busy little parties of foragers and troops and slaves, and full of characteristic incident and landscape. Even the universal military bustle is evidently temporary. The languor and luxuriance of Southern nature is hardly disturbed, and seems with placid disdain to await the departure of the intruders."

From this painting, William Luson Thomas (1830-1900) executed the wood engraving for the London News, which called Nast's work "one of the most remarkable historical paintings in a late exhibition of fine arts at New York," noting "[i]ts conception is eminently dramatic, and the attitude of the figures tells its own tale," adding "[o]n the whole, we should say, that the haughty ladies and the pert child at the top of the steps will do well to follow the example of their dusky servants, and give the new comers a more friendly reception, leaving it to the masculine chivalry of the South to try if it can deal with the invaders of Georgia by force of arms; and, if not, to acquiesce in the restored authority of the Union."

The Pair: $175

Political Cartoons

Within the spectrum of Harper's images, political cartoons occupied a particularly eloquent niche. With such famous cartoonists as Thomas Nast, the magazine was poised both to reflect and to shape national opinion of current affairs. By employing the figure of the black man as a symbol of regions, ideologies, and race, Nast and his contemporaries documented the range of attitudes held by Harper's European-American readers toward Americans of African descent.

moreGo to page with more cartoons by Thomas Nast

Blackville Prints

While the "Darktown" prints by Currier & Ives are the most famous images of post-bellum African Americans, more people probably saw this series in Harper's Weekly. With its impressive circulation around the United States, Harper's reached more than 10,000 subscribers with each issue. To white subscribers, the satires were humorous. To modern viewers, they reveal the racism with which America has always struggled, perhaps never so keenly as during Reconstruction. Illustrators who contributed to this series were Sol Eytinge, Jr. (1833-1905), William Ludwell Sheppard (1833-1912), S.C. McCutcheon (fl. in New York 1880-1883) and "Sphinx."

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©The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd. Last updated May 22, 2018