Liverpool artwork of the day – Thursday September 13 2007. ‘The Hunted Slaves’ 1861 Richard Ansdell (1815 – 1885). Oil on canvas, 184 x 308cm in The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool
The slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807 but full emancipation of slaves in British territories was not achieved until 1834 and in France until 1848. In September 1862 (the second year of the American Civil War) in his Emancipation Declaration, President Lincoln stated that from the following January:
“…all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
While slavery still persisted, the theme of the fugitive slave was to become an important one in art on both sides of the Atlantic.
Painted in 1861, the year of the outbreak of the American Civil War, this picture portrays two runaway slaves, turning to face the pack of mastiffs which has pursued them. When the painting was first exhibited the artist included a quotation in the catalogue from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem ‘The Dismal Swamp’ , which describes the flight of an escaped slave. Interestingly the subject of Longfellow’s poem is an old and quite pathetic figure, unlike the graceful heroic man in Ansdell’s painting. Both Longfellow’s poem and Ansdell’s painting are powerful indictments of the savage treatment which Black slaves suffered.
Abolitionist writings from the United States and Europe undoubtedly had an important impact on artists and writers. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, which had been inspired by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, won immediate popularity throughout Europe. A passage in this book describing how a slave named Scipio was cornered by a pack of dogs in a swamp may have been the inspiration for Ansdell’s painting.