This painting of a Kitchen Ball is remarkable for its vivid depiction of the private lives of African Americans in the antebellum South. However, these are not the farm laborers who comprised the vast majority of enslaved Americans. These are privileged household servants who have accompanied plantation families to the fashionable mountain resort of White Sulphur Springs. It was not uncommon for slave owners to sponsor dances and other social events for their servants. Visiting the resort, artist Christian Mayr was fascinated by one such ball, almost certainly celebrating the wedding of the couple at center. Perhaps Mayr was amused at the slaves’ imitation of the customs and manners of white society. The artist resists the crude caricatures typical in representations of African Americans at the time. His revelers are convincing as individuals. We can speculate that the artist, as a recent immigrant from Germany, felt less constricted by American racial attitudes and thus more open to seeing African Americans as people, not chattel.
Still, we are left with the question: how would an American in 1838 respond to this image of slaves at play?
tags: celebration, dance, community
Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina