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The Price of Blood, 1868
Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835 – 1907)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
39 1/4 x 49 1/2 inches
Status: Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia

Reared in a well-to-do, slave holding family, Thomas Noble in his adult years was horrified by prejudice, bigotry and racial injustice. He used painting as a medium of social protest against these ills in such works as Margaret Garner, Slave Market, Salem Martyr and The Price of Blood.

Noble was born on a plantation at Lexington, Kentucky, on May 29, 1835, to a family that was also involved in rope manufacture. He was expected to follow a business career, but choosing the path of a painter instead, he studied with portraitist Samuel Price in Louisville. His father made it possible for him to continue his studies at the National Academy of Design in New York, hoping thereby that Thomas would get the desire to be a painter out of his system. This was succeeded by two years in a business career in St. Louis, naturally arranged by the father, but Thomas's desire was not to be diverted, and in 1856 he was off for Paris.  He entered the atelier of Thomas Couture, where his teacher's teacher, Olivier Frazer of Louisville had studied. He and Couture formed a lasting friendship. His admiration for the French artist was great. He wrote some thirty years later, "It will take the world another century to understand Couture as I do and to accord him his place among the great ones of the earth."1 Noble made several attempts at allegorical painting following the example of Couture, but in the majority of his works, even these student works in Paris, he was slowly working out his social ideals.2

In 1859 he returned to the United States to set up his studio in St. Louis, where he worked until the Civil War. He was a captain in the Confederate army assigned to New Orleans and attached to the staff of the Governor of Louisiana. After the was he returned to St. Louis and resumed his painting career. He painted "Margaret Garner" in 1866. The picture depicts a fugitive slave mother who has murdered two of her children, rather than see them returned to slavery. She shows their bodies to her pursuers as two more children cling to her in terror. The picture won Noble election to the National Academy of Design when it was exhibited there in 1866.3

Two years later he painted The Price of Blood. The painting represents the sale of a slave from the seated man clad in slippers and smoking jacket to the slave trader who, standing, carefully reads the contract. The owner seems to wait impatiently as the trader reads the terms of the transaction. Both men appear disinterested in the object of their trade, the slave who, with a detached air, but anger written on his face, looks away from them. The figures are in a dark setting, relieved only by the carpet on the table, the pile of coins, an inkwell and the carafe with two half empty glasses that no doubt had a part in the finalizing of the deal. Barely perceptible over the seated man is a framed picture, which on close examination, is seen to reveal Abraham's attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac for God. One might more logically expect to see here Joseph sold into slavery, but Noble very deliberately used the Abraham and Isaac story. When one looks closely at the features of the slave the reason for this choice is horribly obvious. The slave is mulatto and not completely black. What we are actually witnessing is the sacrifice by the seated figure of his natural son to his god, the gold coins on the table.4

The Price of Blood was exhibited at the National Academy of Design the year in which it was completed. Later it received the gold medal from the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, and in 1888 it was shipped abroad for exhibit in the International Exposition Glasgow.5 According to a tag on the picture, it was in the "Sale Selection" of the latter show, and it may very well have been purchased there for a British collection.

Interestingly, the year after Noble painted it he left St. Louis for Cincinnati to become professor of art and the first director of the McMicken School of Design. He remained with the school, which was renamed the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1884, until his retirement in 1904.6 He encouraged a mingling of the fine and applied arts, and in fact, some of his female students at the Academy founded the famous Rookwood Pottery.7 In addition to his activities at the school, he painted the portraits of many prominent Cincinnatians. He moved to Long Island after his retirement to be near his children, where he painted nothing but landscapes and seascapes until his death three years later.8

Noble wrote his former master Couture in 1873 that he wished to return to Paris to paint "my Masterpiece" under Couture's supervision. "I still hope to produce a work which will procure for me the title of true artist, but I believe that I will never merit a position among the great painters."9 It is sad to think that Noble never believed himself to be a "true artist" for certainly The Price of Blood powerfully captures and depravity and freed which can prey on the souls of men, and in successfully conveying that message, it is a true work of art. Cynthia Seibels

1The best source for Noble's early biography is Albert Boime, Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980. The quote is from page 656 of this source.

2Ibid., p. 581.

3Peter S. Rohowsky, "`The Price of Blood'": Thomas Satterwhite Noble's View into the Abyss of Slavery and the Slave Trade" (unpublished article), p. 3.

4I am grateful to Mr. Rohowsky, cited above, for his interpretation of the painting and for The Grand Central Galleries, New York, New York, for making his paper available to me.

5Rohowsky, p. 5.

6The Golden Age: Cincinnati Painters of the Nineteenth Century Represented in the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 1979, p. 88.

7Boime, p. 588.

8Boime, p. 586.

9Boime, p. 583.

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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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