Huntsville’s Weeden House holds first life-like paintings of freed slaves

Huntsville’s Weeden House holds first life-like paintings of freed slaves

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) -The Weeden House in Huntsville is home to some of the very first life-like paintings of African Americans.

Maria Howard Weeden, more commonly known as Howard Weeden, is the artist. She lived in the home from 1846 until she died in 1905.

Weeden was the first artist to paint African Americans true to life.

“Up until that time they had been depicted in illustrations as almost like a cartoon," said Beth Hamilton, the Weeden House Museum director. “Because of her art it gave insight to their emotions, their personalities.”

Weeden was born in 1846 and was the youngest of 10 siblings in a wealthy family. Her father was a doctor and cotton farmer but died six months before she was born.

She lived in the Weeden House her entire life, except during the Civil War when Union soldiers took over the house.

During the Civil War, her mother took Howard and her sister Kate to live in Tuskegee with family. In Tuskegee, she met Elizabeth Price, a lifelong friend who would be very influential in her life.

After the war, Howard and her family returned to Huntsville and the Weeden House.

Howard always loved art, especially water colors. Her passion was not truly discovered until she and Elizabeth Price went to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.

In Chicago, she saw many drawings and paintings of African Americans as only cartoons and caricatures. This upset her and when she returned to Huntsville she began to paint the newly freed slaves who still lived and worked in Huntsville.

“They were her friends and you can tell by the way she captured their personalities and their emotions,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said Howard was incredibly detailed, using a brush of only a few horse hairs.

“If you were to take a magnifying glass, you could see each individual hair on their heads, in their beards," Hamilton said. "You can see tears in some of their eyes, and wrinkles and veins in their faces.”

Hamilton said while Howard painted her friends, she would talk with them. Once she finished her painting she would write a poem about her subject, in their own words.

“She gave voice to what they had experienced during slavery in many of the poems," Hamilton said.

During this time, Howard was not making very much money. Hamilton said she would often create a new painting, make several duplicates and then sell the duplicates for as little as three dollars.

Howard’s talent was not fully recognized until her friend Elizabeth Price took some of her work to show in galleries in Paris and Berlin.

“Howard became an overnight success," Hamilton said. "She was able to get a book deal, she published four books of poetry.”

Howard’s four books wereBandanna Ballads”, “Old Voices”, “Shadows on the Wall” and “Songs of the Old South.”

The books were full of Howard’s works. Each of the paintings in the books were followed by a poem about the subject on the next page.

“If you read between the lines you can hear their stories," Hamilton said. "And they accompany the portraits so well, if it’s a sad story you can see tears in their eyes, if they’re joyful you can see laughter in their eyes.”

Hamilton said Howard’s art and poetry can be looked at as an early history of the freed slaves of Huntsville.

“She was decades ahead of others as a champion for civil rights," Hamilton said.

Howard died in 1905 at the age of 59. The Weeden House is now a museum and also a venue for meetings, parties, weddings and receptions.

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