Author: Barbara Luck

retired curator of paintings, drawings, and sculptures at Colonial Williamsburg.

Lewis Miller’s Virginia Slavery Drawings

Many of Lewis Miller’s watercolor sketches depict enslaved people in Virginia. Historians have drawn heavily on these to inform their interpretations of bondage as practiced in the state during the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861–1865). Miller, who lived from 1796 until 1882, was a Pennsylvania native who worked as a carpenter and often visited his brother in Virginia. His watercolors and the texts that accompany them are rare, because few artists of his time bothered to depict or write about slaves. His pictures are also valued for their relative emotional detachment and credibility, for Miller fancied himself a recorder, not an agitator, activist, or commentator. He avoided shading his subjects with personal opinion in lieu of drawing and writing what he saw and heard. Yet no reportage is strictly neutral, and he was not immune to wishful thinking, stereotyping, and sentimentalizing. For these reasons, his pictures and texts are best understood within the context of his time, biography, personality, and artistic style. While it is usually impossible to say whether specific subjects were enslaved or free people, the specific contexts of Miller’s sketches, combined with what historians know about Virginia’s population and its large-scale agrarian economy in the antebellum period (1820–1860), suggest that most of the African American people depicted by Miller were, in fact, enslaved.