“Bloody Vestiges” Out of the Night: Racialization and Adolphe Yvon’s Genius of America
by Elizabeth Mangone
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, formerly enslaved Black Americans had a burgeoning hope to receive the rights which were promised by the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Yet, despite the emancipatory purpose of the Civil War, inequality persisted in legal, cultural, and social spheres. One manifestation of this inequality in the post-Civil War era is the racial stereotyping of people of color. This legacy of racialized stereotyping is also visible in art made in or about the United States. Genius of America by Adolphe Yvon (1817–1893), also called The United States of America, is an allegorical painting commissioned by the Irish-American businessman Alexander Turney Stewart (1803–1876) which commemorates the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States (fig. 1).1 Despite its message of liberation, its depictions of white people and people of color differ, with Black Americans relegated to the roles of “bloody vestiges” emerging from a war-torn “night.”2 Although Adolphe Yvon was an important painter in his time with connections to the highest levels of the second French imperial court, this painting, and his oeuvre more generally, remain largely unstudied in contemporary literature.3 While Genius of America was surely meant as a celebratory image of peace and emancipation, it reveals racial biases that were still present in the post-Civil War period and exhibits white anxieties over the process of emancipation and integration. Yvon’s strategic contrast between dark and light, and between Black and white figures, places newly freed Black Americans in a position of reliance on their white counterparts who metaphorically guide them out of the shroud of night and into the daylight of the newly reunited republic.
Yvon was a French Academic painter most known for his battle paintings, which include depictions of the Crimean War, Marshall Ney’s retreat from Russia, and the Battle of Solferino.4 He was born in Eschwiller in 1817, completed his schooling in Paris, and then traveled to Le Havre in 1834 to study painting under the tutelage of M. Ochard. He later joined the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris as a student of Paul Delaroche.5 Much of his early work was religiously themed, but he began composing historical scenes around 1846 when he completed “Battle of Koulikowo” on a trip to Russia.6 Yvon soon gained a reputation for Academic painting, and he won multiple medals, earned induction into the Legion of Honor, and served as a professor in the École de Beaux-Arts from 1863 to at least 1883.7 The use of allegorical figures, especially as overtly as in Genius of America, is not singular in Yvon’s known oeuvre, but it is a somewhat unusual occurrence. However, the depiction of current events, especially those relating to war, is typical of Yvon.
Genius of America was one such work that embodied Yvon’s painterly interests, which also manifested as an interest in the American Civil War. Alexander Turney Stewart, a Scots-Irish entrepreneur, commissioned the painting after viewing a sketch which Yvon made for an allegorical painting of the Civil War depicting what Henry Jouin called the “reconciliation of the North and the South.”8 While at this point it is unknown if Yvon ever visited the United States, it is possible that he was exposed to the country through the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris. The United States won several awards for advancements in technology and the arts at the fair and would surely have left the impression of a nation that was ready to leave behind its war-torn past in favor of a bright and advanced future.9 Stewart also served as the Honorary Chairman of the United States Commission to the 1867 World’s Fair; this event may have been where the two first met.10
While the exact circumstances of Stewart’s acquaintance with Yvon are not yet known, when Stewart’s collection was auctioned in 1887, it included multiple paintings by the artist. Genius of America is the only known commission as well as the only painting which Stewart owned of Yvon’s that addresses an American subject.11 Stewart was an Scots-Irish immigrant turned American business tycoon who sold dry goods and textiles. He immigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen and proceeded to build a business empire that began in New York, but ultimately spanned across both the United States and Europe.12 He belonged to a group of Irish protestants who originally came to Ireland from other parts of Europe, but by the mid-nineteenth century would have identified themselves as Irish.13 By the time he died in 1876, his business and estate were worth at least $50 million.14 Stewart’s relationship to the Civil War and the institution of slavery is debated. Art historian Hugh Honour claims that Stewart had connections to Southern planters which made him resistant to the emancipation of enslaved people up until the Union began purchasing their blankets and uniforms from his business.15 However, Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, in their book The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates — A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, claim that he sold all the uniforms at cost, which would, instead, suggest that he supported the Union’s war effort against the Confederacy.16 Regardless of Stewart’s political leanings, he commissioned this painting from Yvon, as well as a mural-sized version of the work completed in 1870, which commemorated the end of the war. The mural was purportedly too large for Stewart’s private gallery, and so it hung in the ballroom of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York.17 Stewart’s ambiguous relationship with the Civil War may be reflected in Genius of America, as it shows both a nation reconciled after the Union’s victory and one still affected by the shadow of war. The painting also reinforces racial stereotypes, such as paternalism and white morality, which were used both to justify slavery and to call for abolition.
Although the title Genius of America suggests a unified Republic, contrasts between day and night, and light and dark, enhance differences between groups of people even as the painting celebrates the end of the Civil War (fig. 1). The tone of the center and left side of the painting is celebratory and the allegorical figures are highly classicized, suggesting both the joy of a newly found peace and a tying of the newly reunited American Republic to the roots of democracy. The composition is centered on two figures standing on a lion-driven chariot: Liberty, dressed in white and holding a mathematical tool which associates the figure with logic and reason, and Wisdom, dressed in green and wearing a breastplate decorated with a Medusa figure, implying a connection with Athena or Minerva. Around them stand women signifying each of the newly reunited thirty-four states of the Union, as evidenced by the architectural crowns they are wearing and the state abbreviations present on some of the crowns. At left are wagons of white figures with farming tools, identified as immigrants in Yvon’s 1870 description of the mural-sized copy of this painting.18 The identification of these figures as immigrants may reference Stewart’s own status as an Irish immigrant. The figures in the left register are, through the use of light and positioning, clearly associated with progress and the United States’ future. Their immigrant status therefore ties the future of the nation to immigrant populations made up of people like Stewart.
In contrast to the brightness of these scenes, the right register of the composition is shrouded in darkness and set against a red-skied battlefield with bodies still hanging from the gallows. This part of the composition is mainly inhabited by newly emancipated Black Americans, but also features Indigenous people at the back of the crowd. The darkness of the right register is oppressive, with only small highlights of light falling upon the faces of specific figures as they turn towards the center of the work. The band of red sky calls attention to the battlefield, indelibly linking the people before it with the aftermath of war. This association with darkness, night, and war depicts people of color as unmodernized and violent. In the upper right corner white figures on horseback are fighting off monsters, including a Medusa-like figure. A statue of George Washington, which is being presented with olive wreaths by devotees, overlooks the scene. The figure of George Washington associates the right side of the composition with America’s past, and his gaze conspicuously turns towards the center of the painting and the nation’s metaphorical future rather than back at the Black and Indigenous figures emerging from darkness.
The racialized tropes on display in Genius of America are especially apparent when the figures on the right side of the composition are compared to those on the left, a difference enhanced by Yvon’s use of light and shadow. In his 1870 description Yvon wrote, “On the right the bloody vestiges represent the past…From this night emerge the populations of color, from the Indians whom the light begins to fall upon to the Blacks, whom the whites raise, moralize and free.”19 By using the word night rather than darkness Yvon implies not only that people of color are without the illumination of wisdom, morality, and liberty, but also that this lack of illumination will, just as the night does, come to an eventual end. However, the painting also implies that this end will not be brought about by the Indigenous and Black Americans, but rather by their white contemporaries. Here Yvon suggests that Black and Indigenous people are helpless in the face of the night and need the assistance of morally righteous white figures to join the metaphorical day. By contrasting the extreme darkness of the metaphorical night with light encroaching from the left—brought by the white Europeans and allegorical figures—Yvon places people of color in a helpless role. He also reinforces paternalist ideologies and the trope of Manifest Destiny, which dictates that white Americans are divinely ordained to explore and settle the United States. These ideas rely on an otherized counterpart, such Black and Indigenous people, for their existence.
Yvon presents another contrast between the right and left registers of the painting with the inclusion, or lack thereof, of tools and implements of technology. The right register of the image is noticeably free from these features, with the only exception being the spears held by two Indigenous men even deeper in the dark night than the Black Americans. These spears only serve to draw deeper connections between the Indigenous figures and stereotypes of violence, rather than implying a technological proficiency. The European immigrants, in comparison, are shown with farming tools, oxen, and wagons. The white soon-to-be Americans are active in the cultivation of their future, whereas the newly freed Black Americans passively wait for the future to reach them. This contrast is even more striking given that many, if not the majority, of emancipated people in the United States had been freed from forced labor in agriculture, and so would have been readily capable with the tools in the hands of the white Europeans.
The contrast between the European immigrants with farm tools and the Black Americans who possess no technology may also allude to European beliefs about the “civilizing mission” of colonialism. Despite Stewart’s habitation in New York, and his attachment to the United States more generally, he spent many of his formative years in Ireland.20 Given that both the painter and the patron of Genius of America were European, it is likely that this scene of the United States also reflects contemporaneous European ideas. The idea of Europeans having a duty to civilize, moralize, or educate non-Euro-American cultures and peoples has long been used as a justification for colonial enterprises.21 Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, modern science became increasingly important as a marker of civilization.22 The idea of science as a civilizing force is bolstered by the mathematical tool present in Yvon’s depiction of the allegorical figure of Liberty and the subsequent implication that the idea of liberty itself is reliant on Western reasoning. The omission of farm tools and any other markers of technological progress in the right register of the painting implies that Black and Indigenous people are not yet ready to join the civilized post-war nation. However, the arrival of the European immigrants with modern agricultural tools signals that they will bring civilization and technology to the country’s future.
In the view of some Europeans and Americans in the nineteenth century, people of color were not only less civilized, but also possessed less humanity. The contrast in poses between the white and Black figures may evidence this belief. Whereas the European immigrants stand straight-backed and celebratory, waving pieces of fabric and hats in the air, the Black figures are largely shown hunched over or in supplicatory poses. These wide-eyed and awestruck representations of people of color resonate in a passage purportedly from Yvon’s memoirs. In the passage, he tells the story of visiting a slave market at which he saw “a beautiful creature” with the “frightened eyes of a gazelle.” He describes the “bronze colored” person as leaning on their hands and implies that his first instinct was to call them their front legs.23 Slavery was made illegal in France twice. The first emancipation of enslaved individuals occurred in 1794 under the First Republic. However, Napoleon Bonaparte reinstituted both colonial slavery and the slave trade in France in 1802.24 The second abolition of slavery was passed by the provisional government of the Second Republic in 1848, when Yvon was 31 years old. Although Yvon lived in France after slavery had been made illegal, this story suggests that he still held the view that enslaved individuals were in some way subhuman.
Yvon’s use of contrasting poses is also vital to understanding the racialized tropes of paternalism and the white man’s moral duty present in Genius of America. One Black figure thrusts an infant upwards towards the center of the composition, as if doing everything they can to ensure the child can be as close as possible to the bright daylight of the future that emanates from the West, both metaphorically through connections to Europe and literally through the physical layout of the painting (fig. 2). In contrast to the uplifted infant, the white mothers hold their children calmly to their bodies. This juxtaposition implies that the Black mother figure feels that the infant would benefit from exposure to the light of the future and therefore the light associated with white immigrants. Another Black figure is shown bowed over and peering, enraptured, at a Bible held by a stoic white clergy figure. The paternalistic figure of the clergyman embodies Yvon’s description in Explication des Ouvrages of white figures moralizing Black figures, and implies that this moralization justifies racial stereotyping (fig. 3).25 The idea of enslaved people needing to be moralized is also connected to France’s attitude towards emancipation over the course of Yvon’s lifetime. In the midst of debates leading up to the second end of French colonial slavery in 1848, one of the bills passed to appease abolitionist voices granted 650,000 francs to the purpose of providing a moral education to enslaved people.26 The presence of the clergyman may also reference Stewart’s history with religion. Before he immigrated to the United States, Stewart studied to become an Anglican minister.27 The visual comparisons between the Black and white figures, which are bolstered by the visual contrast between dark and light, support the idea that while the white immigrants are active and forward moving, the Black figures are rooted in the past and thus require assistance and education in order to participate in America’s future.
A notable pair of figures in the right foreground visually embodies the idea of Black dependence. There, a white man supports a nearly nude Black man who is reaching, completely outstretched, towards the center of the painting (fig. 4). The man’s blue coat identifies him as a Union Soldier, one of the only specific visual allusions to the Civil War present in the work.28 The soldier’s face is calm, whereas the Black man’s expression is rapturous as he gazes towards Liberty and Wisdom. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and emancipation, the relationship between the soldier and the Black man may likely have been considered positive, or even progressive, by the white viewer as it showed a white man uplifting a freed slave. However, the contrast between the soldier’s steady support and the Black man’s desperate sprawl away from the dark night and towards the light results in an unequal dynamic. The white man is depicted as level-headed and calm even as he supports the Black man, invoking tropes of white paternalism and Black hyper-emotionality. These two figures distill the relationship between white and Black Americans proposed by this painting: while Black people may be free from slavery, they still rely on white Americans for hope, education, and support.
Yvon’s Genius of America celebrates the end of the American Civil War, but the allegory also suggests white anxiety in the wake of emancipation. The contrast between the well-lit, celebratory Europeans and allegorical figures and the awestruck people of color shrouded in the darkness of night shows how beliefs about racial inequality translated into the visual arts. In Genius of America, Adolphe Yvon’s invocation of the night is central to the relationship between white people and newly freed Black people. While Yvon imagines white immigrants as productive and secure in the light of day, he places people of color in the night, surrounded by and embodying tropes of spiritual corruption, ignorance, and helplessness. The painting claims to celebrate a united nation, the freedom of enslaved people, and the belief in a progression from the war-torn night of the antebellum era into the radiant hope for a postbellum future. Yet, in this progression, people of color are still firmly situated in the past. Genius of America reveals the contemporaneous reality that while emancipation might have been achieved, equality was far from realized.
Elizabeth Mangone is a first-year MA student in art history and archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a BA from Furman University. Her research focus is broad ranging in European art with a special interest in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century abstraction.
1. Thomas B. Brumbaugh, “The Genius of America: Adolphe Yvon’s Remarkable Picture,” Southeastern College Art Conference Review 11, no.1 (Spring 1986): 9. Genius of America is likely not Yvon’s chosen title for the painting. The work seems to have been commissioned with the title The United States of America but was colloquially referred to as The Genius of America.
2. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are the author’s. Explication des Ouvrages de Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture, Gravure, et Lithographie (Paris: Charles de Morgues Frères, Imprimeurs des Musées Imperiaux, 1870), 392.
3. A. Augustin-Thierry, “Souvenirs D’un Peintre Militaire,” Revue Des Deux Mondes 17, no. 4 (October 15, 1933): 844–849. In this essay Thierry relays the story of Napoleon III posing for a battle painting in Yvon’s studio, showing that the artist was connected to the Emperor himself during the French Second Empire.
4. Eugène Heiser, Peintre de Batailles et Portraitiste: Adolphe Yvon (1817-1893) et les Siens (Paris: L’Imprimerie Hamann, 1974), 75.
5. Henry Jouin, “Discours Prononcé le 13 Septembre 1893 au Nom de d’École des Beaux-Arts en le Cérémonie des Obsèques du Maitre” (Paris: L’Artiste, 1893), 12–14.
6. Henry Jouin, “Discours Prononcé,” 16–18.
7. Eugène Heiser, Peintre de Batailles et Portraitiste, 65.
8. Henry Jouin, “Discours Prononcé,” 51. The French word used here, “esquisse,” has a direct translation of sketch, but likely would have been understood by Academicians to imply a detailed plan of the artwork in question. While changes could, no doubt, be made as part of the commission, it is reasonable to assume that the main compositional elements of the painting are Yvon’s design rather than Stewart’s.
9. Elliot C. Cowdin, An Address Delivered Before the N.Y. Agricultural Society at the Annual Meeting, Albany, February 12, 1868 (Albany, NY: New York State Agricultural Society, 1868), 48–50.
10. “Death of A. T. Stewart,” New York Times, April 11, 1876.
11. “Catalogue of the A. T. Stewart Collection of Paintings, Sculptures, and Other Objects of Art,” 39.
12. “Death of A. T. Stewart,” New York Times.
13. David Hayton, “Anglo-Irish Attitudes: Changing Perceptions of National Identity among the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, Ca. 1690–1750,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 17 (1988): 145–157.
14. Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, “Alexander Turney Stewart,” in The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present (Secaucus , NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1996), 34–37. The value of $50 million in 1876 is approximately $1.3 billion when adjusted for inflation to 2022 dollars.
15. Hugh Honour, “Uncle Tom or the Freed Slave, 1852–1876,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the American Revolution to World War I, Slaves and Liberators, vol. 4, ed. David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 167–222.
16. Klepper and Gunther, “Alexander Turney Stewart,” 35.
17. “Catalogue of the A. T. Stewart Collection of Paintings, Sculptures, and Other Objects of Art,” 106. The mural is currently housed at the New York State Education Building in Albany, NY.
18. Explication des Ouvrages de Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture, Gravure, et Lithographie, 392.
19. Explication des Ouvrages de Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture, Gravure, et Lithographie, 392. Note that “Black” has been substituted in the place of a more offensive and archaic translation of the French word nègres.
20. “Death of A. T. Stewart,” New York Times.
21. Nicholas Harrison, Our Civilizing Mission: The Lessons of Colonial Education (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019), 2.
22. Patrick Petitjean, “Science and the ‘Civilizing Mission’: France and the Colonial Enterprise,” in Science across the European Empires, 1800–1950, ed. Benedikt Stuchtey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 107–128.
23. Henry Jouin, “Discours Prononcé,” 31.
24. Lawrence C. Jennings, French Anti-Slavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802-1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge U4iversity Press, 2006), 3–4.
25. Explication des Ouvrages de Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture, Gravure, et Lithographie, 392.
26. Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 (New York, NY: Verso, 1988), 486.
27. “Death of A. T. Stewart,” New York Times.
28. The identification of this figure as a Union soldier is bolstered by Stewart’s own history of selling Union uniforms. The prominent placement of the soldier could have served as a reminder of Stewart’s role in the war and possibly even as an advertisement for Stewart’s products.