Thomas Hovenden, Two Figure Studies
In 1882 Robbins Battell, a New York manufacturer, commissioned an American history painting from artist Thomas Hovenden. The chosen subject was the moment before the execution of abolitionist John Brown. In 1859, John Brown led a raid on a U.S. armory and arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to arm enslaved African Americans. The raid failed and Brown was captured and found guilty for conspiring to incite insurrection and treason. Brown was imprisoned and eventually executed on December 2, 1859. His actions played a role in bringing on the Civil War.
Hovenden, himself an ardent abolitionist, conducted extensive research for this painting. He read accounts of the execution, studied the site of the jail cell where Brown was held, interviewed Brown’s jailers, and worked from models he carefully positioned in appropriate clothing in his studio. This study of two figures might have been made for The Last Moments of John Brown, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or for his small oil study of the episode, John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.