In 1865, the year the war ended, American artists continued to paint Blacks in settings that suggest their new found freedom. But gradually the focus on Blacks as subjects began to fade among white artists. Their responses mirrored that of the North’s white population, which then turned toward other matters (such as industrialization, Western expansion, and international trade) and left the job of Reconstruction to former slaveowners in the South. The attitude of many northerners became one of distancing from their social responsibilities; one faction argued that Blacks should learn to take care of themselves—to use their skills to earn their own living without government assistance, such as what had been provided by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
In Johnson’s painting, Fiddling His Way, a Black man is doing just that—earning his living as an itinerant fiddler [See Hills, 1999: This was the last major painting Johnson did of Blacks. There is another version, Fiddling His Way, in which an older white man is placed in the same setting and fiddling for the entertainment of the household]. —PH