J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Collecting Possible Images of Oscar Marion

Yesterday I linked to an image of John Blake White’s painting of “General [Francis] Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal,” in a discussion of how best to acknowledge the place of the general’s enslaved servant Oscar in history.

It turns out that White made several copies of that scene, and one came into the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It’s not on display but can be viewed through the museum’s website—which includes a close-up feature.

White’s image was reproduced in other ways over the years:

Before photography, artwork was reproduced by other artists working by hand, and they introduced variations in the image. The images above differ in how, and how well, they depict the black serving man at the left of the composition—lately identified as Gen. Marion’s enslaved servant Oscar. His face appears more or less caricatured in different images. Some versions seem to emphasize the detail that he’s spilling liquid from his ladle onto the table; in others, that detail is hard to spot. Some pictures show the man picking up sweet potatoes, but in the Currier & Ives print he’s grabbing a piece of firewood.

Another figure who varies stands behind Marion’s left shoulder, one hand over a horse’s neck. In White’s painting he, too, in black. The Currier & Ives print makes him a generic black man while another print shows his skin tone not much different from the other men in the background. In the small bank note images, that figure is barely visible at all. It’s not clear why this figure could not be identified as Oscar Marion, except that he’s less prominent.

Another painter who depicted Francis Marion was William Ranney (1813-1857). He was born in Connecticut, spent his adolescence in North Carolina, studied in New York City, volunteered for the Texas War for Independence, and finally settled in New Jersey. His Marion paintings date from about 1850. Unlike White, he never claimed to have met Marion as a boy.

Ranney’s “Marion Crossing the Pedee” is now at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. It, too, has been reproduced in engravings and lithographs, such as these from the Library of Congress collection. There’s also a small study for the painting at the Greenville County Museum of Art.

Like White, Ranney depicted Marion with black servants. There are two black men in this boat. One is easy to pick out: he’s the only man who’s rowing. (Let me say that again. He’s the only man who’s rowing.) The other stands near the front of the boat holding the horses, looking ahead somewhat vacantly while all the other men in that area are turned toward their mounted commanders.

Finally, Ranney produced a painting now titled “Marion and His Men” (thumbnail above), which shows a mounted black man near the front of the column might cement that assignment. This is the most vigorous, least subservient depiction of an African-American in all these paintings. He’s not stooping, relegated to the background, or shown as incompetent. Still, of all the figures in the image, he alone has his sleeves rolled up, indicating that he’s from a laboring class.


klmacnutt said...

I always thought the man serving the potoatos was "oscar" I am now in some doubt. White did 4 sweet pototo pictures and I have copies of all four. They differ significantly from the prints. According to Yeardon, a newpaper man who was writing in the 1840's and who married into the Marion family, Marion's servant was Buddy and Oscar is a ficticious name. He also said that there had been a portrait done of Buddy. He was probabably talking about the sweet potato picture. Marion had a 2nd servant that was very faithful named Cropo or Crapo. As Marion's personal servant, Buddy would have reflected on his master and would have been well dressed. Based on that, I think Buddy may be the black man holding the horse both in White's picture and in Ranney's. Buddy could play the fiddle and may have been able to play the bugle which one of the black men is shown with.
Buddy was not in the family at the time of Mrs. Marion's death (which means he was not around to pose) but Crapo was. I can give you more info if you want.

J. L. Bell said...

The 1821 memoir of William Dobein James identifies Francis Marion’s slave serving food in a wartime camp as “Oscar,” and that influenced other authors. If there are good records of the slaves Marion owned around that time, and they offer no hint of an “Oscar,” then that name might well have been fiction.

With your hints, I see that the Southern and Western Magazine and Review in 1845 said that “Buddy” actually accompanied Francis Marion during the war. Curiously, the editor of that magazine, William Gilmore Simms, had published a biography of Francis Marion mentioning “Oscar” the year before.

There are some other paintings of Francis Marion during the war, with black men shown accompanying him.

Personally, I rather doubt any of those paintings shows an individual servant. I think the black men in those paintings were symbolic rather than individuated.