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Eastman Johnson

(American, 1824-1906)
The Freedom Ring, 1860

oil on wood, 18 1/4 x 22 1/4 inches

The Freedom Ring is a powerful and enduring document of the abolitionist movement, painted more than a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. The painting was commissioned by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of activist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, to chronicle the story of a girl nicknamed “Little Pinky.”

In a service on February 5, 1860 at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, Reverend Beecher made an emotional appeal for the rescue of the mixed race child, who was soon to be sold into slavery by her owner. “Rain never fell faster than the tears of the congregation” it was reported. As a result, more than $2,000 was gathered–enough to buy Little Pinky out of slavery several times over–and a valuable ring that had been left in the collection plate was given to the girl as a keepsake. When Beecher presented the ring to the child, who was later christened Rose Ward, he is said to have solemnly announced: “With this ring I do wed thee to Freedom.”

The moving story of Little Pinky was widely circulated in the press at the time, becoming an iconic victory for the abolitionist movement. It exemplifies Johnson’s characterstically sympathetic depictions of the plight of African Americans at a pivotal time in American history.

Today is Election. Tomorrow we shall hear the first boom of the verdict, though it will probably be several days before we shall be able to know with any certainty how it has gone. But I hope certainty is not to be long deferred. The worst that can happen I believe, is a disputed election. It seems to me that we have not had an election since Lincoln’s with so much at stake. But I cannot for the life of me believe that Garfield will not be elected, and I think by such a majority as to leave all uncertainty out of the question—I trust it may be such a one as to settle that Solid South business for all time—If it isn’t, it will have to come yet, for the battle has got to be fought over again with the ballot.

From a letter to painter Jervis McEntee dated December 2, 1880, from Archives of American Art, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Artist's Letters. Printed in Eastman Johnson, Painting America by Teresa A. Carbone, published by Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Rizzoli Internatinal Publications, 1999.
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Eastman Johnson, Portraiture, African American, Childhood, Culture, History, Storytelling, Realism, Painting, Oil, 1800s,