Thomas Satterwhite Noble grew up in an environment of slave holders and slave traders. The son of a prosperous family who maintained ropewalks for the twisting of hemp into binding cords for Southern cotton, he departed his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky for art studies in Louisville with Samuel Woodson Price. It was through Price that Noble learned of the atelier of Thomas Couture in Paris, France; he enrolled there in 1856, enhancing his drawing skills by working from plaster casts and life models, and absorbing the painterly trends in naturalism so apparent in his heavily glazed and textured surfaces.
Noble returned to America in 1858 with a heightened artistic and social consciousness. He joined his family in St. Louis, where his father had relocated the rope business. Though not a supporter of the institution of slavery, Noble enlisted in the Confederate Army’s Corps of Engineers and served three years, operating ropewalks and building pontoon bridges in Louisiana. At war’s end, he moved back to St. Louis before relocating to New York in 1866. Between 1866 and 1869, Noble painted a series of five pictures dealing with slavery and abolition: The Last Sale of Slaves, John Brown’s Blessing, Margaret Garner, The Price of Blood and Fugitives in Flight. Scholars believe these works may reflect the artist’s “underlying sense of guilt for his participation in the conflict and [stand] in remembrance of his childhood experiences.”
A member of the National Academy of Design, Noble left New York for Cincinnati in 1869 to accept a post as professor of art and the principal of the McMicken School of Design. During his tenure there, he turned to other subject matter, especially history paintings that foreshadowed the colonial revival movement, and resumed his practice of portraiture. It was around this time that Noble painted Forgiven, a work believed to be inspired by the poem “Counsel” by Edgar Fawcett which had been published in the July 1872 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Though the painting was not well received by audiences who found the scene morbid, Forgiven received the silver medal at the 1872 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition.
After 1877, Noble maintained a second residence in New York City. In 1881, he embarked on a two-year leave of absence from the McMicken School in order to study at the increasingly influential Munich Academy. Upon his retirement from teaching in 1904, he moved full time to New York, where he died in 1907.