Above: The painting shows a young boy, free of slavery’s shackles but still not safe. He is fleeing to the Union encampment (in the background) with its white Sibley tents and a Union soldier in Zouave uniform standing at attention near the American flag.
Writer: Loulou Kane
A young lad flees desperately toward the safety of a Union Army camp in the haunting image of a Civil War painting that languished in obscurity in Des Moines for much of the past century. Created by New York artist Vincent Colyer (1825-1888), the work is called “The Contraband,” a cold term the U.S. military used to refer to fugitives from Confederate slavery who were seeking refuge in the North.
The painting is an important work of art for its place in American history, its life-size scale and its subject. A gift to the Des Moines Public Library (DMPL) in 1928, the work was tucked away for decades before being found in the library’s attic in the late 1980s, and, after some restoration, was put on display. In 2005, it was crated for the move to the new library. The painting has come to light again only recently, 154 years after the Civil War.
While giving the painting a fresh look for its restoration and its destiny, the library realized the work deserved the care and exposure that only a major institution could provide. “The cost to restore this iconic work is significant and more than the Library is able to bear,” says Sue Woody, director of the DMPL.
After much deliberation, the library in December sold the work to the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library, which plans not only to restore and display the painting but also to use it as an educational tool. The historical society “will exhibit it to the thousands of school children who tour their museum every year while learning about the history of slavery in America,” Woody says, adding that the museum “already owns a number of Colyer’s original publications and other materials related to the painting. We believe it is the perfect venue for ‘The Contraband’ to receive the exposure it deserves.”
Artist and Humanitarian
Colyer was a Quaker, abolitionist, federal administrator, Connecticut legislator and humanitarian. Specializing in portraits, he studied at New York’s National Academy of Design. His work was in demand, and he was in the thick of the American art world, a small, tight-knit community centered in New York. A close friend was Hudson River School painter John Frederick Kensett, with whom Colyer founded the Artists Fund Society to aid artists in need.
Colyer’s administrative skills were such that in the midst of the Civil War (1862), he was appointed to organize and supervise the growing black community of Freed People, also referred to as refugees, developing on Roanoke Island, N.C. Here Colyer registered thousands of people, assigned them jobs, paid wages, and set up housing, medical treatment and church services.
Colyer also set up schools—a step too far for Edward W. Stanly, the new military governor of North Carolina appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. Colyer went to Washington, D.C., to protest to Lincoln about this decision and others, such as proposals by some to return former slaves to their owners. Colyer later quoted Lincoln as having said, in his presence, “… no slave who once comes within our lines a fugitive from a rebel shall ever be returned to his master.”
‘A Loyal Refugee’
Based on my research, I believe the painting’s title when first exhibited was “A Loyal Refugee.” Painted in Colyer’s New York studio after his return from Roanoke, it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design’s 38th Annual Exhibition, which opened April 14, 1863. Among the exhibition’s reviews was one in Harper’s Weekly (May 2,1863) by G.W. Curtis, who wrote: “The War confronts us again as we enter the large gallery and turn to the right to begin. No. 3 is A Loyal Refugee, by Vincent Colyer, who went as a teacher to North Carolina, and paints what he knows. The refugee is a slave boy escaping to our lines; and the picture opens the Exhibition with a thrill, for we remember as we look at it that the flag of the United States is at last what it was meant to be, the flag of freedom for all mankind.”
Works of art about the Civil War painted during the war are rare. As Eleanor Jones Harvey, the curator and author of the 2012 exhibition and catalog “The Civil War and American Art,” points out, there was no market for scenes of Americans killing one another, and furthermore, in the middle of war it was “difficult to immediately identify heroes and pivotal battles.”
Nevertheless, a few artists did create images, some of which have become iconic. Winslow Homer, an artist-reporter for Harper’s Weekly Illustrated in 1862, was embedded with Union troops, turning out images of troop life. He turned one into the well-known 1863 painting “Sharpshooter,” now at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. Artist Eastman Johnson witnessed and painted a family on horseback fleeing their former slave existence. This circa-1862 painting, called “A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves,” is now at the Brooklyn Museum. Colyer’s work belongs to this group.
Journey to Des Moines
So how did Colyer’s “The Contraband” get to Des Moines? It was first owned by successful Baltimore businessman Thomas Kensett, John Frederick Kensett’s brother. He may have purchased it from the 1875 Interstate Industrial Exposition in Chicago, where it was exhibited with close to 500 other oil paintings. Kensett’s ownership of the painting was cited in art reference books as late as 1897, although he had been dead 20 years. There follows a 50-year gap when the painting went “missing.”
It reappeared in 1928 when Judge Jerry B. Sullivan gave it to the Des Moines Public Library. A letter from the judge accompanied the gift, but it has not been located. We can conjecture that he gave the painting because of personal connections. He was born in 1859 in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, practiced law in Des Moines, was active in state politics as a Democrat, and became a federal judge in 1913, moving to New York City. After retirement and as a widower he returned to Des Moines, where he died in 1948. He had no children.
In 1928, when Sullivan made his gift, the library was Des Moines’ de facto museum. It served periodically as a venue for traveling art exhibitions. The year 1928 was also the 65th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And perhaps most significantly, the Ku Klux Klan was active locally in the 1920s, and for someone like Judge Sullivan, whose Knights of Columbus fraternal order did anti-defamation work against the racist and also anti-Catholic Klan, the public library must have seemed like the appropriate home for a painting symbolic of our national ideal.
Today, the painting’s journey back to New York City is fitting: It returns to its original home—a city of millions and a travel destination for millions more—where it will be safely housed and widely shared.