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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

The Artistic Imagination: Painting of Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation

Many historic events take place out of the spotlight, unobserved by artists, photographers, writers, or reporters. This is particularly true of those moments that involve an individual making an important decision or writing a document that will mark a watershed moment in history. How an artist imagines that moment, while it may be far from the literal truth, can challenge and invite the viewer to think about the event in a new way.

The Special Presentation, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, includes a painting by David Gilmore Blythe, in which he imagines how President Abraham Lincoln looked as he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Study the painting carefully (be sure to look at the entire image and not just the detail shown in the Special Presentation; access the entire painting by clicking on the thumbnail). Answer the questions that follow:

  • What is the overall appearance of the room in which President Lincoln is working? Why do you think the artist portrayed the room in this way?
  • On what is Lincoln’s left hand resting? What is the significance of these two documents?
  • List several other symbols in the room. What was the artist trying to convey by including these symbols?
  • How has this painting changed or stimulated your thinking about this “unobserved historic moment”?

Choose an important decision in African American history. Some examples might be Frederick Douglass’s decision not to participate in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s decision to launch a campaign against lynching, Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the military, or Jackie Robinson’s decision to become the first African American in major league baseball. Research that decision in the African American Odyssey collections. How would you imagine the scene when the decision was made? Sketch or write a prose description of the scene. How does going through this process of exercising your artistic imagination change your thinking about the decision? How might your artistic representation of the decision spark someone else’s thinking?