Maurie McInnis, art history professor and associate dean for academic programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, recently published Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade. The book, which won the Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art, traces the American slave trade through the work of Eyre Crowe, a British artist who visited a slave auction in Richmond in 1853.

Where did the idea come from to tell the story of the American slave trade through Eyre Crowe's paintings?

Maurie McInnis
I have been long intrigued by the individuals represented in Crowe's painting Slaves Waiting for Sale. I was haunted by the man on the right-hand side of the painting. I was foolishly hoping that I might be able to figure out who the individuals were and what happened to them. Knowing that the artist had traveled to America and painted these works from first-hand observations, I was intrigued by what his paintings (among the only eyewitness visual records of the American slave trade) might reveal about one of the most horrific chapters in American history.

How much did you already know about the slave trade going into this project?

Much of my scholarly career has been devoted to the study of the material world of slavery and its representation by visual artists. None of it, however, had prepared me for the difficult material encountered in writing this book. The American slave trade is a story not as well known as the international slave trade, and yet it is a story with as broad a reach. From the closing of the international slave trade in 1808, it is estimated that 350,000 slaves were sold from the Upper South (Virginia and Maryland) to the states of the newly emerging Cotton South (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana).

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale (1853).
Those hundreds of thousands of sales were almost always accompanied by a family separation, as husbands were sold away from wives, parents from children, brothers from sisters. So while an incredibly difficult topic to study, I think it is vital that Americans study their past and acknowledge the human crimes committed. To move forward we need to acknowledge fully what happened. Eyre Crowe's paintings provide a particularly human and approachable window into studying that past and considering its impact on the lives of individuals.

What are you currently reading now, either for work or pleasure?

For work I am reading Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain by Catherine Molineux. In September I am leading a Cavalier Travels trip to Italy, so my fun reading has been focused on Italy. Most recently I have been reading a series of mysteries by Iain Pears that center around completely fictional art historical mysteries. I just finished The Raphael Affair and am now moving on to The Titian Committee. It isn't often that an art historian gets to be the hero.