Miller was born on May 3, 1796, and raised in
York, Pennsylvania. He was the tenth and last child of John Ludwig Miller and Eve
Catharine Miller, first-generation German-speaking immigrants who were married
less than a year before reaching Pennsylvania in 1772. Following longstanding
family tradition, Miller's father had been trained as an earthenware potter, but
he decided to pursue an entirely different vocation. As a schoolteacher, John
Miller undoubtedly shaped his youngest son's proclivities, nurturing the boy's
inquisitive mind and encouraging his voracious reading habits.
Doting relatives likely fostered Miller's earliest attempts at drawing. More
unusually, he continued to sketch during his thirty-year practice of the carpentry
trade in York. He gratified his neighbors' pride by recording matters of local
historical interest, while he amused (and perhaps occasionally chagrined) them by
capturing their foibles, contretemps, and escapades. As a lifelong bachelor, he
lived with his father and mother until their deaths in, respectively, 1822 and
1830. Then, apparently at least modestly financially secure, he increasingly
indulged a yen to roam, including frequent trips to
[Christiansburg], Virginia, where his brother
Joseph Miller was a physician.
After Joseph Miller's death in 1842, Miller
continued traveling to Virginia, visiting—and, for varying periods, living
with—his brother's descendants and others in the Christiansburg area. (He spent
the last twenty years of his life in Christiansburg, where he died on September
15, 1882.) He was the quintessential tourist, varying his routes to his brother's
[Montgomery County] home
in order to expand his sightseeing opportunities and, once arrived, constantly
setting off on expeditions to destinations near and far. He traveled on foot and
horseback and by coach and train, indefatigable in his obsession with seeing and
recording as much as possible and clearly fascinated by differences between
Virginia and his native state.
Those distinctions included slavery. The fact
that slaveholding was legal in both Pennsylvania and Virginia during much of
Miller's lifetime obscures the reality of the two states' dramatic differences on
the issue: labor needs in Pennsylvania's small-scale, grain-based economy were
filled most efficiently by indentured servants, and the state's large immigrant population readily
supplied these. By contrast, the large-scale agrarian economy of
[Tidewater Virginia], especially its
tobacco cultivation, generated such heavy, long-lasting reliance on slave labor as
to skew numbers for the entire state (and, by extension, to dominate outsiders'
impressions). According to the 1790 census, Virginia's population included 292,627
slaves to Pennsylvania's 3,707. In 1840, the difference was even more
disproportionate: 449,087 to 64.
None of Miller's numerous sketchbooks was ever published or, probably, intended
for publication. Instead, the sketchbooks served as personal diaries crammed with
often disparate, disconnected, and run-on texts, poems, marginal notes, and
drawings. His Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of
Virginia was received by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at
[Colonial Williamsburg] in
1978, but this "book" may never have been organized as such—it begins and ends
with European scenes, for instance—and at the stipulation of the donor, curators
removed its twentieth-century binding, leaving the pages loose. The [Virginia Historical Society] owns another
collection of his drawings.
Many of Miller's Virginia sketches of
buildings, farms, and townscapes are peopled with small figures, some of them
African Americans, usually shown attending to tasks. In two sketches, African
Americans are again depicted as working, but assume more prominent roles in the
pictures (Miller's surrounding text makes no allusion to them, however).
Frequently, Miller crammed pages with images and texts that have no obvious,
direct relationship to one another—for example, one page includes a
believable-looking but isolated and unexplained image of a man hoeing tobacco. Miller's interest in quirks
of nature likely prompted his sketch of an African American servant who was also a
Slaves were closely tied to Miller's image of
Virginia, and he repeatedly used figures of African Americans to symbolize the
state, much in the manner of figures in a cartouche on a map. The frontispiece of
Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia shows
two figures, an African American and a Virginia Indian, supporting the imposing
oval-formatted vista labeled "James River, Virginia." His grandiose title page
from the same book features a circular-formatted vista of the city of
[Richmond] and, below it, several
figures Miller associated with Virginia. The three African Americans in the lower
left foreground imply, by their relaxed attitudes and the fish in the woman's
hand, that "the living is easy." In the center of this foreground vignette, the
attraction between children of different races may have connoted innocence to
some, including Miller, but surely it signaled imminent disaster to others. A line
of row-hoers in the background is too tiny to effectively convey the grimy,
unrelenting toil exacted from most [fieldworkers], a gloss perhaps reflective of
Miller's limited exposure to Tidewater Virginia. Another sketch shows a seated boy
[drawing on a pipe], thus
combining two symbols of the Old
Dominion—slaves and tobacco—in a single image.
In another image from Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, Miller depicts a trio
of servants spinning, shoveling, and pounding corn; the artist even tells us that
the first figure "Represents Our next door neighbor." Nevertheless, his emphasis
is not on their humanity or individualism, but on their suitability as
illustrations of state policy, as revealed by the juxtaposition of the Virginia
seal and the motto on the shoveler's banner ("Protect and Encourage / domestic
& native / industry").
The artist rarely showed African Americans
prominently engaged in hard manual labor. An exception is an image in which two
African Americans wield a crosscut saw while a white man—obviously an overseer or
supervisor—stands between them. Racial interactions are also more fully explicated
here, for the white man presumably represents half of a commonplace master-slave
(or possibly white–free black) relationship. The overseer's waistcoat, frock coat,
and top hat designate him a watcher, not a worker, while the staff in his hand and
his nonchalant-but-domineering pose amplify his authoritarian role. Clearly, he is
not about to break a sweat. But lest one dismiss the scene as stereotyping, Miller
realistically complicates its most obvious theme by including a second white man
in the foreground, one who does share the sawyers' physical
labor. The ax-man at least enjoys a lack of supervision, while a third white man
pursues the skilled craft of shingle-making in the background. Miller emphasizes
the credibility and ubiquity of the race- and role-mixed grouping by labeling the
whole an "Every day's observation."
For the most part, Miller observed the
institution and practice of slavery in Virginia with intellectual curiosity and
detachment rather than emotional involvement. When he depicted a gang march
[Staunton] for Tennessee,
he noted that "the law of Virginia Suffered them to go on," adding, "I was
Astonished at this boldness." It is unclear, though, what exactly surprised him.
He never would have seen such a thing in Pennsylvania, but it is doubtful that he
construed Virginia's "boldness" as "shamelessness." For if he was dismayed by the
plight of dozens of innocent people being torn from their homes and, likely, from
friends and [family
members], and forced on an [exhausting, barefooted trek] into a
worrisome, unknown future, he gave little hint of it. His sketch of the affair
shows men and women sporting dashes of brightly colored [clothing] and moving forward, two-by-two, heads held
high, in a calm, orderly manner. The lines he penned above the scene ("Arise!
Arise! And weep no more / dry up your tears, we Shall part / no more. Come rose we
go to / Tennessee, / that happy Shore. To old Virginia / never—never—return") seem
more of an admonition to "buck up" than an expression of sympathy and concern.
Similarly, Miller's depiction of slaves being
[sold at auction] in
Christiansburg reveals little pathos. In his description, Miller cites specific
names—"Miss Fillis and child, and Bill, Sold at publick Sale in May 12th
Christiansburg, Montgomery County"—increasing the likelihood that he recorded an
actual event. But he fails to tell us whether Bill is the father of Fillis's child
and whether the two adults went to the same buyer. Incongruously (or, perhaps,
courageously), Fillis smiles, while Bill's proudly upraised head seems to belie
his hands' attitude of supplication.
Lynchburg negro dance is
a particularly rare depiction of African Americans, for it shows men and women
pursuing their own pleasures. With two dancers on the left, a woman and man
dancing in the center, and three musicians at the right, the sketch's place-name
and date ("August 18th 1853"), in addition to plausible details of attire and
musical instruments, suggest that Miller indeed glimpsed such a frolic. Miller
also captured a sense of the participants' energy, movement, and rhythm by, for
instance, showing the dancers on the balls of their feet, as well as the central
couple's bent knees. An obscure detail is intriguing: the central female dancer
holds one end of a long blue shawl, scarf, or stole that wraps sinuously around
her body. That a thin stroke of blue watercolor connects to the central male
dancer's hand seems quite purposeful. Thus, however the dancers shared the
accessory, it must have had some role in coordinating their movements.
Below a sketch of two African Americans tending
a cosseted Virginia racehorse, Miller left a written observation on slavery that
is quite rare in his work. He writes, in part: "Change but the hateful term Slave,
and they were a contented and a happy race, happier far than the laboring class of
poor in this country." Although it is not clear whether he was voicing personal
opinion or merely recording an overheard platitude, the claim that slaves were
better off than impoverished free people so closely echoes contemporaneous
[justifications of the
institution] as to raise suspicion that the latter was the case.
Miller referenced many of his sketches and
texts as "chronics," or "chronicles." Defining himself as a recorder rather than
an artist gave him license to ignore the lingering hierarchy of painting genres
that elevated historical, allegorical, and similarly uplifting and edifying
subjects at the expense of commonplace themes and everyday sights. By ignoring
sophisticated artistic theory and so frequently taking subject matter from the
world around him, Miller showed a gratifying lack of discrimination. Admittedly,
the sketchy, amateurish quality of his drawing leaves fine details to the
imagination. Similarly, the academic finesse of illusionistic shading and
modeling, correct anatomical proportions, and optically convincing perspective are
missing. Yet Miller's spontaneity, directness, and topical credibility compensate
for these shortcomings in meaningful, more rare ways. Thanks to his self-appointed
task of describing all that passed before him, present-day historians can
construct fuller, more accurate interpretations of slavery in antebellum
Historical Society of York County. Lewis Miller, Sketches and
Chronicles: The Reflections of a Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania German Folk
Artist. York, Pennsylvania: Historical Society of York County,
Lipman, Jean and Tom Armstrong, eds. American Folk Painters
of Three Centuries. New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., in association
with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1988.
Luck, Barbara R. "Lewis Miller's Virginia." Proceedings of
the Rockbridge Historical Society 10 (1980–1989): 245–272.
McCabe, Carol. "The World of Lewis Miller." Early American
Life 16, no. 4 (August 1985): 25–31ff.
Rachal, William M. E. "A Trip to the Salt Pond." Virginia
Cavalcade (Autumn 1952): 22–27.
Rinker, Harry L. and Richard M. Kain. "Lewis Miller's Virginia Sketchbook: A
Record of Rural Life." Antiques 119, no. 2 (February 1981):
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Luck, B. Lewis Miller's Virginia Slavery Drawings. (2012, November 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lewis_Miller_s_Virginia_Slavery_Drawings.
- MLA Citation:
Luck, Barbara. "Lewis Miller's Virginia Slavery Drawings." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
15 Nov. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 1, 2012 | Last modified: November 15, 2012
Contributed by Barbara Luck, retired curator of paintings, drawings, and sculptures at Colonial Williamsburg.