Throughout the nineteenth century, the rising tide of immigrants—especially from non-English speaking Europe—increasingly alarmed many native-born Americans. In the 1850s the short-lived American Party (popularly known as the Know-Nothings) gained national prominence by its virulent opposition to foreign immigration.This is the unsettling context for an otherwise amusing encounter between the Old World and the New. The father of a family, presumably just off the boat, stops to ask directions of an elderly black laborer. At the time this picture was painted, many people would have viewed both the German and the African American as unwanted aliens and a threat to the nation’s social and political stability. Is the artist expecting us to sneer at the outlandishly dressed German, so naive as to ask a black man for directions? Or can this story of two “outsiders” be interpreted as an appeal for tolerance? And is it relevant that the artist’s father was a German immigrant?
Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina