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Global pursuits: the Underground Railroad.

Charles T Webber (1825-1911). The Underground Railroad, 1893. Oil on canvas, 52 3/16 x 76 1/8" (135 x 193 cm). Subscription Fund Purchase, 1927.26.

About the Art

The subject of this painting is the Underground Railroad, which today has become an American legend. The Underground Railroad was not a systematic means of transportation, but rather a secretive process that allowed fugitive slaves to escape from oppression in the years prior to the Civil War.

There are three identifiable figures in this painting: Levi Coffin (1798-1877), his wife Catherine (1803-1881), and Hannah Haydock (dates unknown), all of whom were friends of Charles T. Webber, the artist who painted this work. The Coffins were legendary in helping runaway slaves escape to freedom in the North, and Levi is often referred to as the "President" of the Underground Railroad.

About the Artist

Charles T. Webber was born in Cayuga County, New York, in 1825. Although he was very interested in art at a young age, he never received any formal training. By 1844, Webber was living in Springfield, Ohio, about seventy-five miles northwest of Cincinnati. While there, he was befriended by the artist John Peter Frankenstein (1817-1881), who was apparently Webber's first and only teacher in the field of painting. During the mid-1850s, Webber began painting portraits and teaching students of his own.

In 1858, Webber moved to Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Soon after, he became very active in the artistic climate of Cincinnati. He was a founding member of the Cincinnati Sketch Club, a group of artists who would meet to practice various painting and drawing exercises. In 1886 Webber was also elected president of the Associated Artists of Cincinnati.

Webber continued his role as an art educator by teaching a life class at the Ohio Mechanics Institute School of Design in 1878. His friends and colleagues in other cities often tried to persuade Webber to leave Cincinnati, but he never would. Webber's work was included in the exhibition of the 1881 Paris Salon.

Throughout his life, Webber created hundreds of paintings, including portraits, landscapes, genre subjects, and historical scenes. In the 1890s, he was regarded as Cincinnati's senior resident artist, and he remained active in the art community there until his death in 1911.

Things to Consider

Webber painted The Underground Railroad in 1893. This work was created many years after the Civil War when the Underground Railroad was no longer necessary.

Although the painting does not depict an actual event, it was created as a celebration of the abolitionists" labors and their moral struggle against slavery. It also has a universal message that individuals can make significant differences in the lives of those less fortunate if they are courageous enough to take the risk.

GalleryCards sumitted by the Cincinnati Museum of Art.
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Title Annotation:GalleryCard
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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