- Contraband Guides: Race, Transatlantic Culture, and the Arts in the Civil War Era by Paul H.D. Kaplan
The title of Paul H.D. Kaplan's book Contraband Guides originates in a passage from Mark Twain's 1869 travel memoir, Innocents Abroad, in which Twain recounts how his tour guide in Venice, a Black man who had been born enslaved in South Carolina and raised in Italy, educated the author on Italian Renaissance art, a topic about which Twain was completely ignorant. In the anecdote, discussed at length in the final chapter of Kaplan's study, Twain compares his tour guide to a "contraband guide," a term coined in the United States to a describe a fugitive from slavery who assisted the Union army during the Civil War (1861–1865). Twain's account of this coalescence of European fine art and US racial politics during the middle of the nineteenth century— and, indeed, the centrality of Black figures within this coalescence—frames the six case studies that compose Kaplan's revealing analysis of underexplored aspects of "the transatlantic verbal and visual discourse" (166) about African American people during the period from about 1830 until 1880.
Kaplan addresses this overarching topic in two ways. First, he analyzes the responses of White US artists and art writers to the presence of Black figures in Western European high art and the ways they incorporated [End Page 205] this European source material into their work. Chapter one, for example, details the responses of several White Americans traveling or living in Venice and Rome to people of African descent whom they encountered in person or as representations in artworks displayed in those cities. William Dean Howells's condescending description of the Black Magus on the clock tower in Venice's Piazza San Marco in his 1866 book Venetian Life offers a revealing glimpse into the writer's racial biases, even though he professed antislavery politics during the period. A particularly fascinating section of Contraband Guide's first chapter probes the associations White US writers made between slavery in the United States and the oppression of the Venetian poor during the Risorgimento. On one hand, some US commentators living in Italy adopted increasingly antislavery positions after confronting the hypocrisy of embracing Risorgimento uprisings while not supporting abolitionism at home; on the other hand, Americans with pro-slavery sympathies continued to insist that the Venetian poor were even more oppressed than enslaved people in the United States.
The second means by which Kaplan explores the book's topic is an examination of African Americans' interest in and engagement with the European high art tradition and the role that people of African descent played in mid nineteenth-century transatlantic culture. Chapter two focuses on the career of the little-known New Orleans artist Eugène Warburg, an African American sculptor born into slavery who lived as an expatriate in Europe from 1853 until his untimely death in 1859. Warburg's career was shaped by sometimes astonishing events that complicate existing narratives about the intersection of race and slavery during the period, including the facts that his travels to Europe—first to Paris and London and then to Venice, Florence, and Rome—were financed through the sale of three people enslaved by his mother after his mother had been manumitted by Warburg's father, and that his career was greatly helped by his courting both pro-slavery and anti-slavery patrons, such as Pierre Soulé and the Duchess of Sutherland, respectively. Kaplan's research on Warburg adds new and important dimensions to the existing scholarship on the experiences of African American expatriate artists during the period, including better-known figures such as Edmonia Lewis.
Contraband Guides's most exciting contributions are those that examine the ways in which encounters with the Old Master European tradition prompted an explicit reckoning with contemporary racial politics in the United States. In chapter four, for instance, Kaplan tracks the decades-long dialogue...