Spotlight Essay: Thomas Ball

Thomas Ball, Freedom’s Memorial, 1875

Spotlight Essay: Thomas Ball, Freedom’s Memorial, 1875
April 2015

Katherine B. Harnish
PhD student, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

Thomas Ball designed Freedom’s Memorial as a reaction to the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865. In this work Ball sought to commemorate what he considered the president’s greatest achievement: the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863, which granted freedom to slaves held in Confederate territories and was a significant milestone towards full emancipation. The resultant sculpture exists in multiple versions, differing in scale, medium, and in the depiction of one of the figures—the emancipated slave. A half life-sized version, sculpted in white marble, belongs to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum collection (hereafter called the Kemper version). Completed in 1875, a full ten years after Lincoln’s death, this sculpture closely relates in design and commission to Ball’s monumental bronze Emancipation Group in Washington, DC (hereafter called the DC version), inaugurated in 1876.1 This essay seeks to interpret the Kemper version both in its relationship to the DC version and as an artwork that stands on its own.2

Though originally from the Boston area, Thomas Ball (1819–1911) lived and worked largely in Florence.3 As one of many American expatriate sculptors working in Italy, Ball created art in a classically informed, idealizing style. Patrons on both sides of the Atlantic sought out sculpture in this style during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. For Americans, this classicizing style connoted ideals of logic and order, of luxury restrained by moderation, and of deeply rooted tradition—especially appealing to the young nation seeking to prove itself on the international stage.4

In selecting the Emancipation Proclamation as his subject, Ball faced the iconographic challenge of condensing this complex historical event into one coherent scene that would be legible to his viewers. Ball’s desire to memorialize Lincoln necessitated keeping the president at the center, even though the ramifications of the proclamation extended far beyond Lincoln’s physical presence. Ball depicted the theme of emancipation with a symbolic rather than literal vignette.

The sculpture shows Lincoln holding a document representing the Emancipation Proclamation5 and gazing down towards a newly freed slave, whose broken shackles lie on the ground before him. Lincoln’s face, with deep wrinkles and sunken cheeks, shows his age and the strain of his responsibilities. Lincoln’s half-closed eyes do not have irises, leaving his gaze unfocused. Combined with his closed lips that neither smile nor frown, Lincoln appears somber yet benevolent. His trousers, double-breasted coat, and bowtie mark him as a statesman. These clothes register the formality of the event, while, at the same time, their simplicity points to Lincoln’s personal austerity. As his right hand unfurls the scrolled document, he holds his left hand out with his palm facing downward. This left-hand gesture can be read as one of blessing, of bestowing a new status on the formerly enslaved.

If we follow the trajectory of Lincoln’s right hand, the one holding the proclamation, we discover ways in which Ball attempted to simplify and sanitize the events surrounding emancipation. The paper rests on a relief-carved post inscribed with symbols that evoke the origin and continued strength of the nation, including a profile of George Washington, shields, stars, and fasces.6 This close physical relationship between the scrolled document and the post implies that the two issues of emancipation and preserving the Union complemented and supported each other. However, we know that for Lincoln there was significant tension between these two political agendas and that his first priority was the preservation of the Union. Lincoln strategically delayed the progress of emancipation, and when he did act with the Emancipation Proclamation, he was heavily criticized both by abolitionists for doing too little too late and by his more conservative constituents for moving too quickly.7 Ball’s sculpture removes all of this controversy. Instead, it contributes to the process of codifying Lincoln’s image in public memory as the heroic “Great Emancipator.”

I am not the first to point out this discrepancy. The commissioning organization for the DC version, the Western Sanitary Commission, invited Frederick Douglass, the famous African American orator, to give a speech at the inaugural ceremonies of the monument.8 In a bold move that problematized Ball’s misleading depiction of Lincoln, Douglass reminded the gathered crowd of Lincoln’s presidential priorities by stating, “The Union was more to him than our freedom or our future.”9 Douglass encouraged the crowd to remember Lincoln as an imperfect advocate for African Americans, yet one who did ultimately bring about emancipation. His statements clash with Ball’s sculpture, which he was presumably brought there to praise.

Returning to the sculpture but shifting our gaze to the second figure, the freedman, we encounter not a second historical individual but rather a generic black man who might symbolically represent all of America’s emancipated slaves. Ball depicts this figure using the classical tradition of portraying personified ideas through the idealized nude body with a few significant attributes to cue viewers to its identity. By idealized, I mean that the figure shows no deformities, irregularities, or even signs of age, and that it fits the proportions linked to optimal physical beauty.

In the postbellum context of the United States, Ball’s choice to make the personified figure an African American figure is radical in and of itself.10 Part of the historic justification for racialized slavery in America was the pseudo-scientific understanding that black people where less evolved than white people. Ball’s idealized figure of the freedman, a black man representing the apex of physical perfection, works against this popularly held racist notion. It may be that Ball intended this visual language of idealization to have an ennobling effect. However, when combined with the modern and individualized depiction of Lincoln, the classicizing language reads as more degrading than elevating.11 Further, I argue that the act of classicizing the freedman distances him from the violence of slavery and thus undermines the lived experiences of the enslaved people in America.

Nudity is one of the key aspects of an idealized figure. Ball’s freedman wears a loincloth that protects his modesty while still conveying nudity. His lack of clothing marks him as an idealized type, but in the presence of the clothed Lincoln, this can be difficult to interpret. Whereas Lincoln’s attire helps define his position in society, the freedman’s loincloth does not refer to any occupation or class status. Excluded from the sartorial codes of civilization, the freedman reads as un-civilized, as savage.12

The idealized freedman has a young and healthy physique, with defined musculature and smooth skin. His crouching posture puts visual emphasis on his exposed back and its conspicuous lack of scars. Tucked into a longer litany of praise for the sculpture, a contemporary commentator admiringly described Ball’s handling of the freedman’s physique: “We see nothing of the horrors of slavery… the freedman is a vigorous, strong, athletic man, whose whole figure shows kind physical treatment….”13 This writer was surely primed to expect to see scars by abolitionist materials that often represented scarred backs as exemplars of the violence of slavery. Instead of balking at the historic inaccuracy, the writer celebrates the statue’s depiction of emancipation as an event that simply erased slavery’s brutality. Whether or not Ball fully intended this result, I interpret this sculpture as presenting a version of history that questions former slaves’ experiences by dismissing their physical and psychological suffering. It also effectively pardons the former slaveholders by projecting a gentler version of slavery. Their historical role is once again obliterated by the treatment of the shackles, which seem to have spontaneously fallen away without the intervention of either the enslaved man or his owner.

The lowly posture of the freedman also conflicts with the idealization of his body. Here we see the strongest marker of his inequality with Lincoln. Working with a setup of mirrors, Ball himself modeled the position of this figure.14 Ball attempted to embody the idea of slavery, and put concerted effort into imagining himself as newly liberated, but to what effect? Crouching positions the freedman as a child, or even an animal. His vulnerable posture conveys his need for protection. Lincoln’s hand, hovering over his back, becomes a shield and a symbol of paternalism.

The freedman raises his head, seemingly in recognition of his emancipation. In his face we find the standard physiognomic cues that the freedman is an African American—a broad nose, full lips, and tightly curled hair. Sculpture, in the neoclassical tradition, was a monochromatic art form, so racial differentiation through skin tone was not available.15 Although the freedman’s facial features define him racially, they reveal nothing of his thoughts. Classical aesthetics call for a cool demeanor, so that strong emotions would not contort the facial features. However, in contrast to Lincoln’s more expressive face, the freedman’s blank look implies that his mind is equally blank.

A liberty cap completes the freedman’s attire. Along with the broken shackles, this hat designates freedom. Iconographically the liberty cap refers to the costume of manumitted Roman slaves. By inscribing this figure in the language of classicism, Ball universalizes slavery, conflating the current world with the ancient world. Much like the smoothness of the figure’s skin, the liberty cap directs us away from the painfully specific history of American slavery. It distributes any blame for the institution of slavery to Western society or even human nature as a whole.

Ball’s choice to convey slavery through an idealized African American body had complicated effects. While seemingly elevating African Americans, it also stripped away their historical specificity and the importance of their lived experience. Additionally, it softened—if not entirely erased—the crimes of their owners. These problems did not go unnoticed by the commissioners of the monumental DC version, who requested that Ball change the composition. The commissioners, a group of white men who led the Western Sanitary Commission (WSC), asked Ball to make the figure of the freedman more active by having him grasp the broken chain of his shackles. They also requested that Ball model the freedman after an individual and remove the liberty cap, thereby significantly weakening the links to classical traditions.16

For reasons unknown, the Kemper version does not display these changes. James E. Yeatman, president of the WSC, mentions the Kemper version in his speech at the inauguration of the DC version: “An exact copy of the original group as first designed by Mr. Ball, has been executed by him in pure white Italian marble for the Western Sanitary Commission, and will be permanently placed, as ‘Freedom’s Memorial,’ in some public building of St. Louis.”17 The material of the Kemper version is significant. Nineteenth-century viewers closely associated marble with classicism, and connected it to qualities of purity and truth.18 Rendering a subject in this material made it subtly and innately more trustworthy to its historic viewership. The white marble reinforces the concept of ideal personifications and universalizing tendency of Ball’s compositional choices.

Freedom’s Memorial aimed to consolidate and commemorate both the legacy of President Lincoln and the events that comprised emancipation. By strongly classicizing the freedman figure, Ball universalized and thereby diluted the problems of slavery, which consequently protected former slave owners. This is particularly appropriate to tensions and concerns of St. Louis, where the sculpture was destined. Populated with abolitionists and former slave owners alike, the former Union slave state of Missouri likely played host to much judgment, blame, and resentment between white residents who differed on this issue. This sculpture implicitly promotes white reconciliation over black social elevation, and in doing so, it hearkens back to Lincoln’s actual priorities while in office. In this way, it seems that Ball did ultimately succeed in creating a suitable memorial for the assassinated president.


[1] I am deeply indebted to the work of Kirk Savage, whose scholarship critically analyzing Civil War monuments is foundational to the spirit of this essay. His groundbreaking work reveals the troubling nature of many of these monuments as they present simplified and misleading versions of the history of the era and perpetuate the status quo of racial hierarchy. Savage features Ball’s Emancipation Group (the DC version) at multiple points throughout his book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[2] Scholarship on the Kemper version is scarce; for a concise introduction to the work, see catalog entry 21 by Joni L. Kinsey in A Gallery of Modern Art at Washington University in St. Louis by Joseph D. Ketner et al. (St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, 1994), 58–59. Wayne Craven discusses what appears to be a nearly identical version in the Chazen Museum of Art (formerly the Elvehjem Art Center) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This essay takes an uncritical position on Ball’s depictions of race. See Craven, “Thomas Ball and the Emancipation Group,” Elvehjem Art Center Bulletin (1976–77), 43–51.

[3] For more on Ball’s biography, see his autobiography My Threescore Years and Ten, 2nd ed. (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1892; New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977). Subsequent citations refer to the Garland edition. In 1900 Ball wrote an updated autobiography that remained unpublished for nearly a century. See Ball, My Fourscore Years (Los Angeles: TreCavalli Press, 1993).

[4] See the introductory essay by Richard L. Bushman in Classical Taste in America: 1800–1840 by Wendy A. Cooper (New York: Abbeville Press in association with the Baltimore Museum of Art, 1993), 14–23. See also William H. Gerdts, American Neo-Classic Sculpture: The Marble Resurrection (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), 11–51, esp. 16–17, 21, and 49–51.

[5] Although the document in the sculpture is not inscribed, and the original Emancipation Proclamation was written on five pages, we can safely assume that the scrolled document represents the Emancipation Proclamation. To view an online version of the original, in the collection of the US National Archives & Records Administration, see _proclamation/

[6] The interpretation of the symbols on this post as representing the strength of the Union comes from Craven, “Thomas Ball,” 42.

[7] For a historically contemporary account of Lincoln’s work towards emancipation and the pressures and criticisms he faced, see Frederick Douglass’s speech at the inauguration of the DC version in Inaugural Ceremonies of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln (St. Louis: Levison & Blythe, 1876), 16–26, esp. 19–23. For a more recent account of Lincoln and the pressures and criticism surrounding emancipation, see Eugene H. Berwanger, “Lincoln’s Constitutional Dilemma: Emancipation and Black Suffrage,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 5, no. 1 (1983): 25–38.

[8] The DC version was inaugurated on April 14, 1876, in Lincoln Park in Washington, DC, approximately one mile due east of the US Capitol building. The statue remains there today.

[9] Douglass, Inaugural Ceremonies, 21.

[10] For the sake of space, I have drastically simplified Savage’s brilliant explanation of the complications that faced nineteenth-century sculptors who sought to depict black figures in a climate of scientific racism and the racial coding of classical sculpture. See Savage, Standing Soldiers, 8–14. Charmaine A. Nelson builds on Savage’s initial argument and explores these cultural and artistic dynamics in the depiction specifically of black female figures. See her book The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), xix–xxix.

[11] Savage first identifies the problems inherent in this juxtaposition, focusing largely on the issue of nude figures versus those wearing modern clothes, in Standing Soldiers, 90. Michael Hatt confirms this observation when he depicts the racist paternalism of northern white abolitionists. He focuses on the issue of clothing and on the inherent status difference between a historic individual and a generic type. Hatt, “‘Making a Man of Him’: Masculinity and the Black Body in Mid-Nineteenth Century American Sculpture,” in Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History, ed. Kymberly N. Pinder (New York: Routledge, 2002), 198.

[12] See Savage, Standing Soldiers, 90. See also Hatt, “Making a Man of Him,” 198. For a broader discussion of the significance of nudity and clothing in nineteenth-century public sculpture, see Savage, Standing Soldiers, 57–58.

[13] “The Freedmen’s Monument,” Daily Democrat, July 4, 1873. Copy of newspaper clipping, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, object file WU 3782.

[14] Ball, My Threescore Years, 252–53.

[15] See Nelson, Color of Stone, 58. See also Savage, Standing Soldiers, 16–17.

[16] See William Greenleaf Eliot’s account of the commission process in Eliot, The Story of Archer Alexander; From Slavery to Freedom (Boston: Cupples, Upham and Co., 1885; Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1970), 14. Citation refers to the Negro Universities edition. For more on these changes and their interpretive ramifications, see Savage, Standing Soldiers, 114–15.

[17] Yeatman’s comments in Inaugural Ceremonies, 9.

[18] For a deep investigation of the associations of white marble for nineteenth-century artists and viewers, see Nelson, Color of Stone, chapter 3, esp. pages 57–72.

<< Return to Spotlight Series homepage

Image Credit

Thomas Ball, Freedom’s Memorial, 1875. Marble, 44 1/2 x 27 1/4 x 21 1/8". Gift of Reverend Dr. William Greenleaf Eliot. WU 3782.