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Boys Pilfering Molasses, 1853
George Henry Hall (1825-1913)

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Oil on canvas
12 x 9 1/2 inches
Signature Details: G.H. Hall/"53
Status: Private Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana

Although recognized by his contemporaries as one of the leading still-life painters of his generation, George Henry Hall began his career as a genre painter in the anecdotal tradition of George Caleb Bingham and William Sidney Mount. Born in Manchester, New Hampshire, he started painting in Boston in 1842 without the benefit of instruction. In 1849 he went to Dusseldorf, Germany with Eastman Johnson, and the two friends enrolled at the Royal Academy. Hall studied at the Academy for a year, then moved to Paris to open a studio. While in Europe, he traveled to Italy. In 1852 he returned to New York and opened a second studio. Almost immediately, he became a regular exhibitor at the National Academy of Design, as well as the Boston Athenaeum.


Smaller in size, and more simplified in details, this painting is likely a study for Boys Pilfering Molasses (1853), in the Georgia Museum of Art. Genre pictures of the 1850s often had a political as well as an artistic agenda. Current scholarship suggests that Hall’s depiction of three urchins, one black, enjoying a lick of molasses pilfered from a barrel on a New Orleans levee, falls into this category. Although the artist’s opinions on the issues of slavery in American society are not known, his concern for the country’s future—and thus the fate of blacks—is suggested in the completed composition. On the mainsail, immediately behind the head of the African American boy, are the words “Empire Line/Clipper Ship/New York/San Francisco.” Whether seen as a cautionary tale against indolence and indulgence, or an allusion to westward expansion and the tensions that followed, it is one of Hall’s earliest American subjects. Boys Pilfering Molasses is probably the canvas shown at the National Academy of Design in 1854 under the title “Licking Lasses,” loaned by E. Whitehouse who may have commissioned it.  NRS


Controversial issues provided the subject for two other pictures painted by Hall in the 1850s, The North and South (present location unknown), exhibited at the Academy in 1857, and A Dead Rabbit (1858; National Academy of Design), a figurative work inspired by a riot between two Irish gangs that broke out in lower Manhattan on July 4, 1857. NRS



Dobkin, John H. From All Walks of Life: Paintings of the Figure from the National Academy of Design. New York: National Academy of Design, 1979.


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