Last month, we posted about two recently acquired 19th-century American genre scenes from our permanent collection (“Winter Morning” by George Washington Nicholson and “The Kitten” by Thomas Waterman Wood). In contrast to these works, which were painted after the Civil War and provide some insight into images of race during the era, the politically charged “Boys Pilfering Molasses” by George Henry Hall was painted and exhibited shortly before the onset of the Civil War.
In 1854, the year that Hall was inducted as an associate member of the National Academy of Design in New York, he presented this transfiguration of the “naughty child” genre as a commentary on the divisive politics of abolitionism. One pernicious effect of the abolitionist debates of the 1850s was the revival of the slave trade under the guise of legitimate commerce. As the son of a ship-timber merchant, Hall knew of the legal and illicit trade happening at New York City’s harbor. The port became infamous for clearing 15,000 slavers a year. Ingeniously, “Licking Lasses” serves as Hall’s commentary on a perpetual slave trade cloaked in the innocence of capitalist commerce. The artist uses the conventions of genre painting, including the popular subject of children pilfering food, to make them speak to the most pressing concerns of New York and the nation.
|George Henry Hall, Boys Pilfering Molasses (or Licking Lasses), 1853|
Hall’s African American boy displays the stereotyped depictions of the antebellum “Happy Sambo,” though not egregiously so. The boy heaps brown molasses on the white bread as if painting a canvas with a palette knife or running a bow over a fiddle. His eyes, nostrils and open lips wait in excitement. He alone has yet to taste what his companions already consume. The white youths turn their backs on him, and, as they victoriously sit and lean on the barrel, they dreamily yet unequivocally indulge in their looted booty. The composition suggests that their aggressive mischief has consequences for the black boy’s fate, as the bread he so attentively butters with the spoils of their pillaging forms the symbolic center of the composition.
“Licking Lasses” also alludes to allegories of the five senses. Taste in particular is a vice fully enacted by the white companions, who slobber over the molasses. Hall’s fair-haired boy, seated victoriously on the molasses barrel, takes on the blushed complexion and mindless gaze of a drunken stupor. His clothes are the most tattered, his shirt shredded as if from whiplashes, and it barely covers his sensuous flesh. Brown molasses oozes from the barrel, soiling all three lads, but none more so than the uppermost boy. He turns his back on the harbor and his African American companion; an upturned cap by his foot suggests begging. The scene symbolizes the greedy appetites that have split the nation, just as the two white boys oppose each other in dress and position: open shirt versus suit coat; one boy faces out, the other in; one rises to the top, the other stays below, occupying the north and south of the picture. Hall makes his condemnation even more explicit by including sails with the letters S, T and E — that is, “Slave Trade Empire.”
The carefully chosen title reinforces the visual and verbal puns of this condemnatory painting. As a mid–nineteenth-century edition of Webster’s Dictionary reminds us, “lick” means to lap, to devour, to consume entirely. But it also means to strike, to whip, to flog, to chastise. By exhibiting his painting under the title “Licking Lasses,” Hall alluded not only to the lapping up of molasses but also to the punishing “licks” and “lashes” inflicted on enslaved African Americans and, by its complicity, on the American Empire, due to its greedy appetite.
Adapted from an essay by Janice Simon in "One Hundred American Paintings," Georgia Museum of Art, 2011.