Although Johnson had exhibited works sent from Europe at the National Academy of Design in the early 1850s, it was his Negro Life at the South that established his reputation as the leading genre painter and assured his election as an Associate Academician, an honor that was invaluable in securing an artist’s fortune. To midcentury white America, the general dilapidation of the slave quarters was picturesque, and the small anecdotal touches were delightful. Today we may be ambivalent in our approach to Negro Life, or at least troubled by the simplistic view of Blacks in stereotypical activities: playing banjoes, shuffling to music, courting idly, and fondling children. However, more issues come to light upon close examination of the painting: What is the purpose/effect of the white woman stepping through the door at the right; what is the effect of the Black woman leaning out the window holding her baby; what about the individualistic renderings of the Black adults? Such questions need to be explored [See Hills 1974; Davis 1991; Hills 1999].
This painting and its variations have been placed in a separate category from Black Groups because of its historic significance as Johnson’s chef-d’oeuvre. —PH