Museum Acquisition: The Captured Runaway

Written by Pippa Roberts | 15 December 2021

Museum Acquisition: The Captured Runaway, a rare abolitionist painting by William Gale (1823-1909), exhibited by Ben Elwes Fine Art at London Art Week 2020

Ben Elwes Fine Art is delighted to confirm the recent sale to an American institution of an important abolitionist painting that was exhibited at London Art Week in 2020.

The Captured Runaway by British artist William Gale (1823-1909) has been acquired by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. In this 1856 painting Gale, a supporter of the abolitionist movement, depicts an enslaved woman captured by a bounty hunter as part of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The work is a rare example of abolitionist art from this period. "Gale has gone to great lengths to set the dramatic scene, highlighting the hopeless plight of this courageous, captured slave, but with this, suggests that escape could be possible," comments Frank H. Goodyear, Co-Director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The Captured Runaway is now on display in the Museum's current exhibition Re ǀ Framing the Collection: New Considerations in European and American Art, 1475-1875.

The Captured Runaway (right) on display in the Museum's current exhibition: Re ǀ Framing the Collection: New Considerations in European and American Art, 1475-1875.
Image courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

"We have enjoyed working with Ben Elwes Fine Art on this acquisition and are proud to add this important painting to the collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art" adds Frank Goodyear. "The painting was likely inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel that was written in Brunswick during a period when Stowe's husband Calvin taught at Bowdoin College. We anticipate that it will be a go-to work for faculty, students, and scholars who are interested in the role that artists and writers played in the abolitionist movement." 

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, USA.
Image courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Abolitionist writings from the United States and Europe had an important impact on artists and writers. Uncle Tom's Cabin of 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which had been inspired by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, won immediate popularity throughout Europe. Stowe's novel centres on Uncle Tom, an older enslaved man, and his many acquaintances, moralising against the enslavement of human beings. While The Captured Runaway does not illustrate a particular scene from Uncle Tom's Cabin, the artist William Gale probably hoped his painting would resonate with admirers of Stowe's story, highlighting the travails of Eliza, the mixed-race slave character who escapes the horrors of slavery. 

The home of Harriet and Calvin Beecher Stowe in Brunswick, now part of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
Image courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

William Gale was born in London, where he probably trained, and where, from 1844 to 1893, he exhibited over 100 works of art at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibitions, including The Captured Runaway in 1856. In 1851, he married and travelled to Italy for his honeymoon and, like many of his contemporaries, he ventured to the Middle East and the Holy Land, deriving rich subject matter from these experiences. He was a prolific artist; his output included biblical and mythological subjects, portraits and Orientalist pictures.

In The Captured Runaway, Gale shows a mixed-race African-descended female slave handcuffed to a bounty hunter, pausing on their journey south, to her owner. The Victorians were at once horrified and politically engaged by real and fictionalised stories of fugitive slaves bravely attempting freedom, and Gale would have achieved maximum effect with his light-complexioned slave (often referred to as a 'quadroon'). His female character wears the standard striped cotton dress and red turban in which slaves were often illustrated. She sits on a U.S. Mail sack, with a piece of nibbled bread on the floor next to her, suggesting that she is less concerned with earthly matters.  Her beseeching eyes look upward, perhaps delivering a subtle Christian message, similar to that in abolitionist fiction, and mirroring the evangelical tone sometimes associated with the anti-slavery movement.

William Gale (British, 1823-1909)
The Captured Runaway
Oil on canvas
49 1/4 x 37 3/4 in. (125 x 96 cm.)
Monogrammed and dated lower right WG 1856.
Courtesy of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The British public felt a strong affinity for the plight of African American enslaved people, celebrating the successful escape of many runaways to British Canada, including Harriet Beecher Stowe's own characters, George and Eliza, where British laws protected the freedom of fugitives, as slavery had been made illegal in the British Empire in 1834.

Even though William Gale's image is not based on an eyewitness account, it nonetheless stands in direct opposition to slavery and to the endorsed federal powers to pursue escaped slaves following the 1850 Act. There were very few abolitionist artists, as most veered away from such political tropes. The few surviving examples of abolitionist art represent the visual culture of the anti-slavery movement and illustrate the trauma and exploitation associated with the slave trade. These were the stories of strength and courage connected to so many of the characters who sought freedom and radical change.  White and black abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic mobilised those experiences and the power of narrative to bring about an end to slavery.

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