Not the Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis

21, January 2011
"The Last Sale of Slaves," oil on canvas by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1871.

On Saturday, January 15, visitors to the Old Courthouse in St. Louis encountered a re-enactment of a slave auction staged to show the historic brutality involved in the selling of human beings. Here at the History Museum there are vivid reminders of slavery’s legacy all around me. On view in the Currents gallery is a large and powerful painting that never ceases to stir my emotions, The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis, as depicted by artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907). To write about it, I needed to re-familiarize myself with its story.

The dramatic scene is supposed to reference a sale that took place on January 1, 1861, on the steps of the Old Courthouse, where the crowd refused to bid over $3.00, thus ending this barbaric auction practice in St. Louis. The light is aimed on a young child dressed in white, standing at the bottom of the steps, who faces the viewer. Atop the steps and up for auction before the large crowd is a beautiful young woman with bowed head, red draped across her shoulders, an infant in her arms. The auctioneer’s left fist raised near her head spurs the audience to bid. If you examine the crowd closely, you can see the best and worst of humankind expressed in their faces and postures. The painting’s reflection of the horrors of buying and selling men, women, and children is intentionally aimed at the heart. The artist no doubt witnessed auctions of this type in his first 30 years, and there is purpose in his depiction.

Noble’s early relationship to St. Louis seems to have been through his father’s business. A plantation owner growing cotton and hemp with the labor of enslaved men and women in Kentucky, the elder Noble also contracted with a rope-making firm in St. Louis whose workers were hired slaves. Thomas left the plantation to study art in Paris, returned to the States in 1859, and enlisted from St. Louis in the Confederate army in 1862. But after the war, once he had opened a studio in New York, the young man became known for portraits and paintings with a historical and abolitionist bent, particularly representing the emotions and brutality of the institution of slavery.

An earlier version of our painting, reportedly titled at the time The Slave Mart, or simply Sale of Slaves, was completed and exhibited in 1866 in Chicago and later destroyed by a fire. The smaller second version, donated to MHM in 1939 by the artist’s family and now on display in the Museum, was painted by Noble while he lived in Cincinnati in 1880, reportedly to replace the one burned. I would love to know how much the second painting differs from the first, but without an image, no objective comparison can be made. There exists a favorable, somewhat flowery and racist description of the work in an 1866 St. Louis Daily Times article. Perhaps because of the subject matter and it being only a year after the end of the war—the tensions of Reconstruction running high—the reviewer used a pen name inspired by a Charles Dickens character, Alfred Jingle, rather than his own.

Was January 1, 1861, the date of the very last sale in St. Louis? History shows otherwise; in fact, auctions continued into 1864 in St. Louis. A sale did take place on New Year’s Day in 1861: A man by the name of Jim was sold. The newspapers of the time did not report any upheaval at the auction. I don’t know that they would have, but there was just as sensational a bent to newspaper reporting back then as one can find today, and it seems likely that this would have been a big news item. Was it so emotionally charged that the editors suppressed all reports? The only mention is that the sale of the six other people from the same estate who were to be sold that day was delayed. The sale of the other six individuals did eventually take place, five months later, on May 4, 1861.

This short research journey into one artifact’s history has made me adjust my way of speaking about the painting to our visitors and we will need to update some of our files. I have realized that the power of the painting lies for me not just in considering the economies of the trade, or whether what was portrayed was the very last sale or not, but in reminding myself of the human-ness, strength, and resilience of those who fought against it, and the context in which it was created.

—Margaret Koch, Director of Exhibitions and Research