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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Louis Ransom's Portrait Paradigm: The Story Behind Ransom's John Brown on His Way to Execution

by Dot Willsey*

In 1857 an obscure portrait painter named Louis Ransom opened a studio on busy Genesee Street in downtown Utica. Three years later Ransom would stun his friends and others from Central New York when he completed his life-sized and life-like depiction of John Brown being led to the gallows.

Warren F. Broderick, Archivist Emeritus New York State Archives, will present an illustrated program on Ransom and his famous painting at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 12 at the Smithfield Community Center, 5255 Pleasant Valley Road, Peterboro during the 19th Annual Peterboro Civil War Weekend.

The landmark depiction of Brown on the Charlestown court house steps became the favorite image of Brown among abolitionists, in part because of Ransom’s controversial inclusion of Brown “kissing the Negro baby.” The painting’s history following its completion was most noteworthy. Its brief exhibition by P.T. Barnum in New York City in 1863 led in part to the onset of the infamous draft riots. The scene on the court house steps in 1859 is now known primarily from two lithographed versions of this painting created by the firm of Currier and Ives. The monumental painting itself received shabby treatment from Oberlin College and is believed to have been destroyed.

"Its brief exhibition by P.T. Barnum in New York City in 1863 led in part to the onset of the infamous draft riots."

The son of a millwright in rural Herkimer County, Louis Ransom (1831-1926) executed many portraits in his long career and some classical and religious tableaux as well. This Renaissance man was also a debater, civic leader, writer, and an inventor who first proposed a self-propelled street car. During his life Ransom resided in four states; in New York he called Salisbury, Little Falls, Utica, Lansingburgh, and Stratford his home.

John Brown On His Way to Execution,
1863 lithograph of the Ransom
portrait, no longer extant
Research conducted in a number of original sources has revealed much new information on Louis Ransom and his work. In a collection of family photographs in the Herkimer County Historical Society a previously unknown signed carte de visite of John Brown, bearing a cryptic inscription, was discovered. Determining how this photograph was obtained by the artist, and deciphering the meaning and origin of the inscription, constitutes another intriguing aspect of the Louis Ransom story.

Except for brief entries in artist dictionaries and footnotes in John Brown biographies, now for the first time the story of Louis Ransom and his master work can be told. Louis Ransom’s studio in Utica was directly across from the asylum in Utica where Gerrit Smith was being treated in December 1859. There is reason to believe that there may be a connection to Smith and the distribution of photographs made by the family after Brown’s funeral.

At the June 12 program Broderick plans to give a brief general overview of Ransom’s life and career and concentrate on the John Brown painting–how and why he created it, and its complicated history leading to its destruction. Broderick will also deal with the discovery of the photo in Herkimer and how Ransom would have acquired it, as well as a discussion of the elements found in the panting itself, such as the kissing incident. Broderick will conclude with an analysis of the short-term and lasting effects caused by the painting and its exhibition, and legacy left behind by Ransom.

Warren Broderick is an historian and archivist by profession and is involved in art history, researching artists associated with Troy and Rensselaer County, New York, between 1800 an 1950. He lives in Lansingburgh a few blocks from the place where Ransom maintained a studio which held the John Brown masterpiece between 1862 and 1874. He is co-author of Pottery Works (1995) and numerous journal articles on local history, specifically relating to history American ceramics, early American literature and folklore, regional history, and Native American studies. He is Editor of a new edition of Granville Hicks’s Small Town (1946), reissued in 2004 by Fordham University Press. He is also active in land preservation, geographic information systems, and natural resource protection in Rensselaer County.

The Annual Peterboro Civil War Weekend is an educational and fundraising event sponsored by the Town of Smithfield, the Smithfield Community Association, and private donors. The 12th U.S. Infantry hosts the military and domestic encampments. Proceeds from the event support the preservation and promotion of the heritage of the Town of Smithfield. During the event Peterboro relives the period of the mid 1800s when the hamlet held national recognition because of Gerrit Smith’s Underground Railroad station, the visitations of famous abolitionists, and the connection with John Brown that sparked the War Between the States. Peterboro sites are on the Heritage NY Underground Railroad Trail and on the National Park Service Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Trail.

Saturday, June 11 hours are 10 am – 5 pm, and Sunday, June 12 from 10 am – 4 pm. Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for ages 6 – 12, and free for children under 6. Admission to the to the special Civil War concert at 8 p.m. Saturday may be paid at the door. Parking is free. For more info, contact 315.684.9022.  www.civilwarweekend.sca-peterboro.org

--Dot Willsey is the President of the National Abolition Hall of Fame, Peterboro, N.Y.

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