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.


Lewis Miller

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.

Natural Bridge

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.

Miscellaneous Notes and Sketches

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 dwarf.

Sketch Book of Landscape's In the State of Virginia.

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.

Represents Our next door neighbor

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.”

Slave trader

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 leaving 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.

Slave Dance

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.

The Virginia Horse

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.


the Party at Supper & breakfast

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 Virginia.

May 3, 1796
Lewis Miller is born in York, Pennsylvania, the tenth and last child of John Ludwig Miller and Eve Catharine Miller.
September 15, 1882
Lewis Miller dies in Christiansburg.
Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, a bound collection of sketches by Lewis Miller (1796—1882), is acquired by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg.
  • 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, 1966.
  • 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): 396–401.
APA Citation:
Luck, Barbara. Lewis Miller’s Virginia Slavery Drawings. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/lewis-millers-virginia-slavery-drawings.
MLA Citation:
Luck, Barbara. "Lewis Miller’s Virginia Slavery Drawings" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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