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His First Vote,
Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903)

View Artist Bio
Oil on panel
20 x 12 1/8 inches
Signature Details: T.W. Wood, 1868.
Status: Cheekwood, Nashville, Tennessee

In 1867 Thomas Waterman Wood painted American Citizens (To the Polls), a genre painting that celebrated the racial equality that was deemed imminently possible in the early, heady days of Reconstruction, when it was made. It shows a Negro, a Dutchman, an Irishman, and what an early reviewer dubbed a "Yankee," each clasping a ballot in his hand. It became one of Wood's best known images and was exhibited several times in the decade following its completion. The picture, a watercolor, was praised for its truth to nature in rendering the characteristics of each national or racial type in a convincing manner. In the spring of 1867 Wood submitted American Citizens to the annual exhibition of the American Society of Painters in Watercolor. Subsequently it was exhibited by the Artists' Fund Society of Philadelphia, and in 1874 and 1875 it was on display at the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.  Although Wood's intention undoubtedly was to make a visual statement of his view of political racial equality, a critic, writing about this famous picture nine years after its completion, revealed a racial basis which he unjustly attributed to the artist:

There are four nationalities represented namely: the Negro with his swelling eyelids and laughing countenance, the paper ballot grasped in his fingers, exhibiting the emotions of a child with his first toy; the Dutchman with his face and form square-built, indicating resolution; the Irishman, his facial lines short and nose turned up indicating mirth and good humour, and the Yankee with a face full of craft, which is implied by the sharp nose and the thin eyelids. As a colorist Wood is forcible, and as a delineator of character, he never accepts the ideal but goes direct to Nature for his models.1

A year after completing American Citizens Wood chose the Negro figure to be the subject of a single-figure composition in the painting entitled His First Vote. Rather than displaying "the emotions of a child," this anonymous individual seems serious and eager to fulfill the responsibilities of enfranchisement. His expression is earnest and his pose animated. He holds his ballot in his right hand, slightly extended, as he is about to deposit it. A fragment of graffiti may be read carved into the stucco wall behind him. The fragment reads "Black Rep" and may be interpreted as reading in full, "Black Representation," confirming the artist's position on the issue of black suffrage, as if the Negro subject alone were insufficient to convey this information. When Wood worked in Nashville, he hired Negroes as models. One of the paintings that resulted from these studio sessions was Cornfield (1861), a view of field hands hoeing the soil enclosed by towering corn plants. It has been said of this oil that "it goes beyond the prevalent `picturesque' and stereotyped image of the black man and attempts to faithfully record man at work." Where other artists rendered Negroes as caricatures, Wood offered individual portraits full of personality and emotion. Such may be said for the sympathetic likeness in His First Vote.

Painted the year following American Citizens, His First Vote may have resulted from a commission received when the larger picture was exhibited with the American Society of Painters in Watercolor. Wood's diaries are filled with non-specific notations of "Portrait" sold, in which the subject is neither named nor described. A nearly identical painting, also called  His First Vote and also painted in oils, was formerly in a private collection, Rancho Mirage, California. The two paintings, each made after a well-known and critically acclaimed watercolor, attest to Wood's popularity and the large demand for his work. Cynthia Seibels, 1990

1"American Painters - Thomas Waterman Wood, N.A.," The Art Journal for 1876 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., Publishers, 1876), v. 2, p. 114-115.

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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