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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, October 30, 2012

Nussbaum's "End of John Brown"

A friend called my attention to a posting on the website Ask Art, which features the painting, "The End of John Brown," by the late Ervin Nussbaum.  Unfortunately, you have to pay to get membership access to this website, which is geared to art collectors, dealers, and students, so the only image available is somewhat small.  According to The Voice, an online publication based in Winsted, Connecticut, "The End of John Brown" was donated to the Torrington Historical Society, Torrington, Connecticut (the place of John Brown's birth in 1800) by the artist's widow, Muriel Nussbaum, in September 2001.  It is described as a "large oil painting."
Ervin B. Nussbaum, "The End of John Brown" (1940)
Torrington Historical Society (Torrington, Conn.)

Although I am hardly an expert on such matters, I find this a hauntingly beautiful image, fascinating and intense in depiction.  To be sure, it is historically inaccurate as far as Brown's last hour and ride to the site of his gallows in Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2, 1859.  There were no citizens present in the procession from the jail to the open field where he was hanged.  The town was heavily endowed with militia by order of the governor; with few exceptions, citizens were proscribed from viewing the hanging.  Fearing that Virginia might be invaded by Brown's allies, slave masters were encouraged to stay home and guard their "property," which included their human chattel.  As suggested in this painting, Brown indeed sat on his coffin in a (furniture) wagon, but he was dressed in a dark suit with red slippers, and a black (wide-brimmed) "slouch hat."  Certainly he would not have presented such a slumped and defeated appearance.  From beginning to end, John Brown appeared cool, confident, and courageous--something that won him a small measure of sympathy from some onlookers.  Finally, despite the beautifully dismal shades of brown in the painting, the morning of December 2nd was sunny and unseasonably warm.  One of the last things Brown said pertained to the beauty of the western Virginia countryside.

Still, Nussbaum apparently grasped the heaviness of Brown's whole time as a prisoner in Virginia.  He was deeply and passionately hated and would have been lynched were it not for the military.  Local editors railed against him, and streams of visitors took advantage of visitation rights to verbally harangue and castigate him and the imprisoned Harper's Ferry raiders quite often.  Besides the surrounding hostility and contempt, the picture perhaps represents the larger sense of human interest that pushed in on John Brown, even as it pushed him forward to the gallows.  We have long forgotten, but in the stormy weeks between the raid and his death, he was the foremost subject of newspapers of the day.  The whole nation was fixated upon the little jail in Charlestown, and the whole nation read detailed accounts of his final hours and courageous walk up the stairs of the gallows to his execution.  The subject of "The End of John Brown" is not so much a prisoner of Virginia militia, but a brooding outcast who seems resigned to die while being crowded by the southern people who found him both repugnant and irresistible.  It is the people who escort him away, not the vaguely suggested soldiers who lead the procession.  This is a great interpretive work, and I would love to have a reproduction.  "The End of John Brown" (1940) won first prize at the Central Ohio Competition in 1941 and was shown at the San Francisco Museum, the Butler Art Institute, the Philadelphia Academy and the Corcoran Gallery.

Ervin B. Nussbaum
(The Hour, 11 Nov. 1994)
The Artist

From what I have been able to glean online, Nussbaum was born in Columbus, Ohio, on November 11, 1914, and was a graduate of Ohio State University.  After winning the Central Ohio Prize, "The End of John Brown" was exhibited throughout the United States.  Nussbaum's years in New York City entailed a range of work, from non-objective canvases to semi-abstract landscapes done in city parks, the New England countryside, and along the shore.  He later focused on Hebraic themes, and was commissioned to do a bronze sculpture for the Trumbull Library in Connecticut.  He also created a wooden bas-relief for Temple Emanuel in Yonkers, N.Y.  Nussbaum also did sculptures of exotic birds in wood, metal, or combination of media.  Nussbaum died in Norwalk, Connecticut, on January 22, 1996, where he had lived for thirty-six years. He had also worked as a professional graphic designer and illustrator prior to his retirement. His work is in the permanent collections of the Columbus Art Museum, the Frankfort Art Museum, and the Norwalk Museum.

Thanks to Norman Marshall for calling this painting to my attention--LD


"Ervin B. Nussbaum (1914-1996)," Ask Art website.

"Sackler Gallery show spotlights Ervin Nussbaum." The Hour [Norwalk, Ct.], 11 Nov. 1994, p. 15

"Ervin Nussbaum: Illustrator, graphic designer." The Hour, 24 Jan. 1996, p. 27.

"Book Signing at Torrington Historical Society."  The Voice News [Winsted, Conn.], 25 Oct. 2002.

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