Slavery paintings and sketches


One of the most formative periods in Eyre Crowe's life was the six months he spent in America in 1852-1853, accompanying William Makepeace Thackeray on his lecture tour of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston and Savannah. The streets of the South, teeming with black slaves, were very different to anything so far encountered by him, and the picturesque nature of the scenes, combined with his horror at the trading of human flesh, inspired Crowe to sketch prodigiously and, later, to turn many of the subjects into finished oil paintings. He produced paintings and sketches based on his journey immediately on his return, and also made use of his experiences to help illustrate the growing crisis of the U.S. Civil War in 1861.

Title: A Slave Sale in Charleston, South Carolina (1854)

Medium: oil

Exhibited: Royal Scottish Academy, 1854

One of the first paintings to be finished after Crowe's return from America. The engraving shown below, 'from a sketch by Eyre Crowe', is perhaps a version of the painting. The engraving was published in the Illustrated London News on 29 November 1856, accompanying an essay by Crowe, which he concluded with a call for greater public condemnation of slavery by the British. The engraving is well known and copies are held by many galleries, print dealers and museums. Sometimes the copies are coloured. Two versions are held at the New York Public Library and appear on their digital gallery.

 Coloured copy of engraving of slave sale in Charleston, by Eyre Crowe (Illustrated London News, 29 November 1856)

Title: After the Sale: Slaves going South (1853)

Medium: oil

Exhibited: Suffolk Street Gallery, London, 1854

Current owner: Chicago Historical Society 

Crowe was struck in Richmond, Virginia, by the scenes after the slave sales, when slaves were 'marched under escort of their new owners across the town to the railway station, where they took places, and "went South". They held scanty bundles of clothing, their only possession. These were the scenes which in a very short number of years made one realise the sources of the fiercest of civil wars' (With Thackeray in America, p. 136). This painting was exhibited at the Suffolk Street Gallery in London in 1854, and was described by the critic in the Art Journal in June 1864 ('British Artists: their Style and Character - No. LXXIII - Eyre Crowe', pp 206) as 'full of life and bustle, but not of the kind that is pleasant to look upon'.

It appears in the journal American Heritage, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, 1967.

'After the Sale: Slaves going South' by Eyre Crowe (c.1853)


Title: American Scene (1855)

Medium: oil

Size: 46 x 36 inches

Current owner: private owner in Germany

This painting is untitled but the presence of a black boy suggests that it was inspired by Crowe's travels in America. The title 'American Scene' was devised by Kathryn Summerwill in 2008 to describe the subject matter. The painting is signed 'Eyre Crowe 1855' on the reverse, and the framing was prepared by Charles Roberson of 54 Long Acre, London.

The painting was formerly in the possession of the von Marle family of Wesel, Germany. It was acquired by the grandmother of the present owner in the mid-20th century.

Painting on an American theme, by Eyre Crowe, 1855

Title: Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia (1856)

Medium: pen and ink

This piece of artwork exists in a pen and ink sketch, engraved and published in the Illustrated London News on 27 September 1856. It accompanied an essay written by Crowe entitled 'Sketches in the Free and Slave States of America', which began with the statement that 'no pen, we think, can adequately delineate the choking sense of horror which overcomes one on first witnessing these degrading spectacles'. It is not known whether a full painting of this exact scene was ever produced, but a similar painting, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia, appeared at the British Academy exhibition in 1861 (see below).

'Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia', by Eyre Crowe (1856)



Title: Slaves Waiting for Sale - Richmond, Virginia (1861)

Medium: oil

Size: 20 x 31 inches

Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1861; 'Black Victorians' exhibition, Manchester and Birmingham, 2005-2006

Current owner: Heinz Collection, Washington D.C., U.S.A. (private)

Inspired and outraged by a visit he made to slave auction rooms in Richmond, Crowe commemorated the subject first in an engraved sketch which appeared in the Illustrated London News on 27 September 1856 (Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia, see above), and then by this oil painting which was exhibited at the British Academy in 1861. The original sketch for Slaves Waiting for Sale, made on 3 March 1853, was published by Crowe in With Thackeray in America.

Sketch of 'Slaves waiting for sale, Richmond, Virginia', by Eyre Crowe (1853)


Original sketch, 3 March 1853, published in With Thackeray in America


'Slaves waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia', by Eyre Crowe (c.1853)

Oil painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1861

Heinz collection, Washington DC

Published in Guy C. Elroy, Facing History: the Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940


The appearance of the oil painting at the Royal Academy exhibition in May 1861 was marked by positive contemporary reviews. The reviewer in the Athenaeum of 11 May 1861 considered that 'Mr. Eyre Crowe will advance his reputation considerably by No. 328, 'Slaves waiting for Sale, Virginia' [sic]... all [the figures are] remarkable for character and expression'.

The verdict of the Times (13 May 1861) was that 'the stout, middle-aged negro to the right, looking eagerly, as if he scented a buyer in one of the loungers at the door, is particularly good in expression. These are truths of negro life'. The reaction of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (August 1861), was slightly less favourable: 'Mr Crowe gives us another form of genre, capital in its way. "Slaves Waiting for Sale in Virginia", broad in marked character, awkward in attitude, truth pushed to the verge of the grotesque.' However, it was the Art Journal (New Series, Vol VII, 1861, p. 165) which gave greatest coverage to the painting:

An artist, hitherto comparatively unknown, has produced one of the most important pictures in the exhibition, and certainly the most promising work of the season, from among those that can be looked on as the apparently coming men of English Art. The subject of Mr. E. Crowe's picture, No. 328, is 'Slaves waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia', and the appalling guilt of that accursed system was never more successfully depicted... [the expressions on the slaves' faces] are powerful examples of a rare power in Art - that of successfully and discriminately representing the inward actuality and outward expression of phases of mental thought and human passion. This success Mr. Crowe has undoubtedly achieved, and he has also achieved another, although of mere secondary importance - the power of representing with facility and fulness feelings which he comprehends with distinctness... This quality of clear-sightedness Mr. Crowe has displayed in an eminent degree... and we leave this picture, with the confident expectation that the artist, although hitherto all but unknown, is able, if he will it, to make for himself a position in what Bacon called "the garden of great intellects".

Looking back on the painting in the Art Journal in June 1864 ('British Artists: their Style and Character - No. LXXIII - Eyre Crowe', p.206), the reviewer considered that 'however skilfully painted such pictures may be, the subjects do not commend themselves either to the eye or the mind. Neither the colour not the features of the negro race can be associated with European notions of aesthetic beauty; and the system of slavery is too abhorrent to Englishmen to render a representation of it, especially in its most objectionable forms, acceptable'. He was unaware whether the painting, or any others of the slave paintings produced by Crowe, had been sold, but noted that he had since turned his paintbrush and his thoughts back to 'their wonted channels': scenes showing noted historical figures.

Slaves waiting for Sale is now held in the Heinz private collection in Washington D.C., United States, and has been cited in a number of recent books and exhibitions, among which are:

  • Hills, Patricia. The Painters' America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810-1910 (Praeger Publishers in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974)
  • Johns, Elizabeth. American Genre Painting: the Politics of Everyday Life (Yale University Press, 1991)
  • Lubin, David M. Picturing a Nation: art and social change in 19th century America (Yale University Press, 1994)
  • McElroy, Guy C., Facing History: the Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940 (Bedford Arts, Publishers, in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1990); and in a review of this exhibition by Robert Hughes in Time magazine, 29 Jan 1990, p.51
  • Marsh, Jan (ed.), Black Victorians: Black People in British Art, 1800-1900 (Lund Humphries, in association with Manchester Art Gallery, 2005)

Title: A Barber's Shop at Richmond, Virginia (1861)

Medium: oil

Exhibited: British Institution, 1861

This painting was exhibited at the British Institution in 1861, when it was valued at 35 guineas (35 15s 0d) and was reproduced in Eyre Crowe's own book of reminiscences of his American trip, With Thackeray in America, in 1893. An engraving of the painting also appeared as the cover page of the Illustrated London News on 9 March 1861.

'A Barber's Shop at Richmond, Virginia' by Eyre Crowe (1861)

Title: Sketches published in the Illustrated London News (1861-1862)

Medium: pen and ink, engraved

The first shots in the U.S. Civil War were fired in April 1861, after a long period of growing tension. The previous year, South Carolina had seceded from the Union, and Abraham Lincoln was elected as President. Readers of newspapers in Great Britain were interested in the worsening situation across the Atlantic, and in February 1861, the Illustrated London News printed a series of engravings of scenes by Eyre Crowe depicting some of the localities now being talked of.

The engravings were 'The Secession Movement - Entrance Hall to an hotel at Charleston, South Carolina', published on 2 February; 'Selling Sweet Potatoes in Charleston', showing female slaves engaged in this activity, also published on 2 February; and a sketch of the principal church in Charleston, published on 16 February. The sketches were based on sketches made by Crowe during his visit to Charleston in 1853.

'The Secession Movement - Entrance Hall to an hotel at Charleston, South Carolina' by Eyre Crowe (1861)

The Secession Movement - Entrance Hall to an hotel at Charleston, South Carolina

'Selling Sweet Potatoes in Charleston, South Carolina' by Eyre Crowe (1861)

 Selling Sweet Potatoes in Charleston

'The Principal Church in Charleston, South Carolina' by Eyre Crowe (1861)

The Principal Church in Charleston, South Carolina

On 26 July 1862, an essay by Crowe describing the town of Richmond, Virginia, together with a general sketch view of the area, also appeared in the Illustrated London News.

Title: The Slave Auction (1862)

Medium: oil

Size: 31 x 21 inches (33 x 53.3 cm)

Owner: Kennedy Galleries Inc., New York, U.S.A. (1967)

This painting, similar to 'Slaves Waiting for Sale' (1861), appeared in Kennedy Quarterly, V.7, No.1, in 1967. Its present whereabouts are not known by the author of this website.

An image of the painting is available at

Copyright (c) 2005 Kathryn J. Summerwill. All rights reserved.