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Forgiven

Oil on canvas
50 1/8 x 65 inches
Circa 1872
As published in: Romantic Spirits: Nineteenth Century Paintings of the South from the Johnson Collection

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s best-known paintings address America’s great divide: the enslavement of people of African descent and its abolition. A series of five powerful pictures executed between 1865 and 1870—The American Slave Mart (1865); Margaret Garner (1867); John Brown’s Blessing (1867); The Price of Blood (1868); and The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis (1870)—confront the issue directly. 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.” As Dr. Tuliza Fleming noted in her dissertation examining Noble’s legacy, “the reviews he received  . . . from his northern audience clearly indicated that Noble’s perception as a ‘reconstructed’ Confederate soldier and southerner was an advantage or, rather, a source of authenticity. Noble was a ‘reconstructed rebel’ who not only fought against the Union during the Civil War, but in the pivotal year of 1867, would rebel against his southern heritage in his art and gain significant advancement in his profession for having done so.”

Noble grew up on a Kentucky plantation that practiced slavery and the trading of enslaved persons. The son of a prosperous family who maintained ropewalks for the twisting of hemp into binding cords for Southern cotton, he began art studies in Louisville with Samuel Woodson Price around 1851, much to the disappointment of his father. 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 1859, joining his family at their new home in St. Louis. He subsequently enlisted in the Confederate forces in 1861, serving first in the cavalry, and then as an operator of ropewalks and building pontoon bridges in Louisiana. He surrendered in New Orleans in 1865 and lived briefly again in St. Louis before making his way to New York in 1866. There, he continued to focus on his signature series in addition to fulfilling portrait commissions and executing history paintings in the academic tradition.

After being elected to the prestigious National Academy of Design in 1867, Noble left New York for Cincinnati in 1869 to accept a post as the first head of the McMicken School of Design (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati). During his tenure there, he instructed several acclaimed artists, including Willie Betty Newman and Elizabeth Nourse. He also began to explore 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. Although the painting was not well received by audiences who found the scene morbid, Forgiven received the silver medal at the 1872 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition.

Noble maintained a second residence in New York City beginning in 1877. 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.