Theodor Kaufmann - On To Liberty [1867]

As a Union soldier, Kaufmann (American, 1814 – 1896) may have seen retreating Confederate troops take adult male slaves with them, leaving women and children to fend for themselves. His portrayal of a group of fugitives includes symbolic details that suggest the lack of either a clear path to liberty or a guarantee of what it would bring to African Americans. The figures flee toward the flag that looms large but remains frighteningly close to the ongoing battle. One of them wears red beads, which signified victory in nineteenth-century African American folklore; another wears blue beads, which were considered amulets of protection. Three of the women carry forked sticks, which slaves believed would ward off witches. Although the figures emerge from darkness into light, the anxious expression on the face of the boy at right acknowledges the danger of their endeavour. A ledge of boulders separates the rocky path underfoot from the smooth road leading to the Union forces.

[Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 142.2 cm]