History Behind the Story: "Slaves Waiting for Sale"

My father was an art historian, so I grew up—as my character Caro did—with the oil paintings that antebellum Charlestonians called “pictures.” My father specialized in the Victorian period, so I was exposed to pictures that told a story with a lot of emotion packed into it. The technical term among art historians is “narrative painting.”

Eyre Crowe, the English artist who painted Slaves Waiting for Sale, was a Victorian and a narrative painter. Many of the 19th-century images of slavery in art criticize slavery by being charged with drama. Crowe’s picture is different. It is a very quiet image, but it is fraught with feeling.

Crowe accompanied the British author William Thackeray on his American tour in 1853, and Crowe sketched everywhere he went. One of his sketches was a study of slaves waiting to be auctioned in Richmond, Virginia. By 1861, Crowe had fleshed out his sketch in oil, and had achieved something very different with it. If you look intently at this picture, You enter their emotional universe. You will wait with along with them.

For more information the context of the tour, the sketches, and the picture itself, take a look at this online exhibit from Virginia Memory at the Library of Virginia.