These three paintings individually have powerful imagery that, when brought together, represent American society during The Civil War. They depict the controversy over the literacy of slaves, and their right to fight in the war.
The Contraband, which depicts an African American man who seems to be preparing to set of to war, is the first of the three paintings. The title the Contraband refers to the man, who appears in the painting, but contrabands are smuggled goods, or in the case of war, they are goods not to be supplied by a neutral party to a contending party. Essentially, Wood is calling the slave population goods that should not be supplied to either the North or the South. The slave population could have been deemed neutral because, at the time, the White Americans believed that the slaves had conflicting interests. The slaves were assumed to have a certain amount of loyalty to their masters, this conflicted with their own desire for freedom. This painting directly deals with the controversy that occurred during the Civil War over allowing the slaves to fight on either side.
The man in the painting appears to be prepared for a journey, but we are not yet sure of which side he has chosen to fight on. There is a closed newspaper on a chair to the man s right. The closed newspaper indicates an ignorance to which party the slave will choose. This is also shown through the lighting in the room. The area of the room behind the man is dark, indicating that he was in the dark, but seems now to be emerging from it. The tip of the hat that the man is giving also, is a form of bidding farewell to the ignorance (the dark) that it was believed he lived in.
The Recruit depicts the same man in the uniform that was worn by northern soldiers during the Civil War. This painting is showing that the man has been enlightened and has chosen to fight for the abolition of slavery by fighting with the North. The first symbol of the man s enlightenment is a very literal one; the room is lighter. There is less dark area behind the man. The second symbol is the newspaper. The paper, in this painting, is open and appears to have been read by the man. This was one of the greatest fears of southern plantation owners. The literacy of slaves would enable them to escape more easily, to be in contact with freed slaves and to know that the northern United States was fighting for their freedom. In the painting the fact that the newspaper is open may seem almost insignificant, but it actually represents the birth of the fears of the white southerners. The man in this painting seems to be looking towards his immediate future, the war, with great pride and excitement. This was the sentiment of many of the black men who fought for their freedom during the Civil War.
The third and final painting is named The Veteran. This painting depicts the same man after the war. His once bright blue uniform, is, in this painting, torn, tattered and faded. Although the man has lost a leg, he s standing proudly on a pair of crutches saluting the past. The light in this painting resembles that of a setting sun. The sun is setting on an era, the war and slavery, and the man is looking back, but he is not saluting to the past era, but to his defeat of it. In this painting the newspaper is not on the chair. The paper had represented the fears that the south had towards the education of the salves. The era of slavery has passed, and therefore the fears are no longer.
This painting depicts the rush of the industrial revolution in America as well as the atmosphere of a city. There are street lamps and what looks to be flashing lights and noise, due to the arrangement of the different colors of gray. The gold number 5 becomes bigger and bigger, which represents both the forward growth of America through industry and the movement of a city. Not only however does the change in size of the number 5 signify the growth of industry, but it also resembles the growth of the American economy. The American currency, which had been backed up by both gold and silver before 1873, was for a while after the Crime of 1873 only gold. However, an achievement while the progressives were in government was to get silver back into the currency. After that industry, big business and trade helped to increase the American economy into something that it had never been, while both silver and gold act as the currency. The grey in this work represents silver while the grey and the gold number 5 join together to create the picture. This painting depicts the greatness and importance of American cities as well. Interestingly, the artist, Charles Demuth, created this work inspired by the poet William Carlos Williams. These fact models the growing importance for art and literature that America felt would help raise its poor socially and economically. The painting as a whole embodies the greatness of American life.