Thursday, February 19, 2004

Freedom Center gets unique gift

P&G donates painting depicting scene of Margaret Garner's tragic killing of her daughter

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ed Rigaud, president of the National Underground Railrod Freedom Center, holds Thomas Satterwhite Noble's painting, "Margaret Garner."
The Cincinnati Enquirer/BRANDI STAFFORD

It was a case that polarized Cincinnati and divided the nation. Escaped slave Margaret Garner killed her 3-year-old daughter in January 1856 rather than see her returned to slavery. Before she could take her own life and the lives of her other children, the family was constrained by federal marshals and later put on trial.

After two weeks of arguing the finer points of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Laws and the rights of former slaves in a free state, the Garners were remanded back to slavery.

This compelling tale, one of the best-known runaway slave stories, captured the imagination of Kentucky painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble, who in 1867 created "Margaret Garner," a small oil painting on panel depicting the murder scene.

Procter & Gamble, which has held the artwork in its corporate collection for more than two decades, has donated the painting to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. P&G will store the painting until the center's storage facility is completed.

"It's sheer coincidence the painting ended up back in Cincinnati," says Ed Rider, P&G's corporate archivist. "They were building a freedom center and we had the painting. It had to go there."

Valued in the low six figures according to Rider, the painting is one of a few representations of the Margaret Garner story.

"When Ed [Rider] told me they were donating it to the Freedom Center, I was overjoyed," says Ed Rigaud, president of the Freedom Center. "I can't wait to share it with the community. It is a stunning painting."

The painting, done in the style of European history paintings, is both important and unique. It is a copy of a larger painting Noble did around the same time that has since been lost, some say to German bombs in London during World War II. The subject matter is unusual as well.

"I don't know any other American painter who took up this subject," says Julie Aronson, Cincinnati Art Museum's curator of American painting and sculpture. "But Noble was an abolitionist, which is apparent in his work. This painting was done right after the Civil War."

In addition to its graphic depiction of slavery, "Margaret Garner" breaks further with tradition by featuring an African-American as its tragic heroine.

According to author Leslie Furth, writing in American Art, "The picture's reversal of the "mammy" type, together with the popular press's association of Garner with the infamous Medea character of Greek mythology, reflected cultural anxieties engendered by the altered status of blacks and the increasingly tenuous paradigms of ideal womanhood in the late 19th century ... the painting seems to absorb and transmit the artist's and his society's deep ambivalence about both women and blacks in post-Civil War America."

But Noble's depiction, says Rigaud, may be a personal interpretation rather than historical.

"I still struggle with why Noble painted Margaret and her children dark when she is described in the research as very light-skinned," Rigaud says. "Her daughter, Mary, in particular had light skin. I don't know if it was out of ignorance or the fact he couldn't [politically] portray her that way. I've always wondered."

The issue of color is central to the Margaret Garner story. It has been speculated that slave owner Archibald K. Gaines, neighbor of Thomas Marshall, owner of Garner and her children, had fathered Mary Garner. At the time of Garner's trial, female abolitionist and feminist pioneer Lucy Stone Blackwell called a press conference to attempt to expose the sexual exploitation of female slaves.


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