Mark Stryker at The Detroit Free Press:
At first glance, Eastman Johnson's large-scale painting “Negro Life at the South” (1859) looks like a sentimental genre picture of a large group of slaves enjoying themselves outdoors at their urban quarters in Washington D.C., during the antebellum period.
A close reading of the painting, a key work in the Detroit Institute of Arts' exhibition “Dance! American Art 1830-1960,” reveals a complex symphony of subtext and symbols. In the center, a dancing boy holds the hands of his mother while a banjo player nearby provides the soundtrack: markers of the centrality of music and dance within African-American culture. Up above a woman and child peer out the window of the dilapidated shack, while back on the ground, a young man makes time with a light-skinned girl who coyly keeps her eyes down on her domestic work. Way off to the side, a privileged white woman in a pretty dress enters the frame, eavesdropping.
These and others in the painting connect to each other through fleeting looks and enigmatic stares. Myriad subtle skin tones among the slaves allude to the reality of forced miscegenation — rape. A ladder from the master's house to the roof of the slave dwelling suggests a passageway; a rooster and hen add other symbolic clues. Southerners seized on the pleasantries in the painting, rendered in soft-focused brushwork, as confirmation of their view that the impact of slavery was benign. Abolitionists, however, interpreted a very different meaning, one affirming their belief that slavery was evil.