A galloping horse, a determined family fleeing a life of slavery, and the setting of the Civil War: these elements comprise A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (cover ). Now probably Eastman Johnson's (1824-1906) most discussed painting, A Ride for Liberty was not exhibited or sold during Johnson's lifetime; it represents a period when the plight of African Americans, specifically slaves, was briefly popular in American art. Other artists produced similar work, yet the emotional power and historical impact of Johnson's painting have led to its lasting interest. During the Civil War era, in the midst of battles too numerous to mention—and too horrible to forget—Americans seemed to desire, and to purchase, for the first time, art depicting slaves. Johnson, a native New Englander, had little first-hand knowledge of Southern plantation culture; his abolitionist sympathies reflected his upbringing in the privileged atmosphere of a politically active and influential Northern family. Johnson followed the Union army but did not participate in active duty; he joined the soldiers as a chronicler of events, a scribe whose pen was a brush and whose paper was canvas. Near Manassas, Virginia—also known as Bull Run—on March 2, 1862, 6 months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Johnson espied a family attempting to escape the bonds of slavery. Clearly moved by the situation, Johnson later produced at least 3 paintings based on this subject. He inscribed one painting, now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, on its reverse: “A veritible [sic] incident in the civil war seen by myself at Centerville on this morning of McClellan's advance towards Manassas.” The nearly identical painting featured here bears no inscription, only Johnson's initials.
Torpy JM. A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves. JAMA. 2010;303(24):2447. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.713