Antislavery Picnic at Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts

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Antislavery Picnic at Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts
1845
Susan Torrey Merritt
1826-1879
Watercolor, gouache, and collage on paper
25 15/16 x 35 15/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Elizabeth R. Vaughan
1950.1846

What is going on in this scene? Dozens of tiny figures are spread out over a large outdoor space with tables filled with food; a town can be seen in the background. At first glance, this picnic may seem like any other; but it was special for its time. Look closely at who is in attendance: amidst a sea of people, there are just a few African Americans. Can you spot them? There are two women behind the picnic table in the center of the image; one of them has a black parasol. In 1845, black and white Northerners rarely attended social events together—the exceptions were abolitionist meetings. Therefore, it’s likely that Merritt’s watercolor shows an anti-slavery picnic typical in parts of the North before the Civil War. These fairs and picnics allowed abolitionists to meet one another, hear speakers, and spread the word about their movement.

Although the exact date of this particular event has not been confirmed, Merritt’s image has traditionally been known as Fourth of July Picnic at Weymouth Landing. While many African Americans enthusiastically celebrated Independence Day after emancipation, it was a controversial holiday before then. As Frederick Douglass explained to white Americans in an 1852 address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me.” Douglass questioned the moral foundation of a nation that celebrated freedom in a land where slavery thrived.

Merritt was an amateur, or untrained, artist who has become well-known for this work of art. She painted, cut out, and pasted the tiny figures to the paper background in a collage method. Art like this is often very detailed, but sometimes slightly awkward. Nevertheless, this piece is an intriguing early document of the abolitionist movement.

Questions:
1. Be sure to look across this entire image. Can you see all the tiny figures?  How did the artist distinguish children from adults and different ethnicities?

2. Are there any details here that suggest that blacks and whites came to the picnic as equals?

Further reading:
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader, edited by Mason Lowance. New York: Penguin Classics, 2000.

Foner, Eric. “The Civil War and the Story of American Freedom.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 8-25 (plate 3, p. 17).

McInnis, Maurie D. Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.


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