NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– Death is the Great Equalizer. Everyone from the mightiest of kings to the most destitute and impoverished, eventually some to the end of the road of life. If we were attending a funeral, this is the exact moment where the Reverend would instruct the grief stricken congregation to turn their bibles to a corresponding text. Perhaps Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
I recently visited the history steeped galleries at the Historic New Orleans Collection. There, many a picture hangs as a glimpse into the lives of others. One breathtaking picture adorns a wall and it’s subject matter is very familiar.
“The name of the painting is “A Plantation Burial,” by John Antrobus,” says Jari Honore, the Visitor Services Assistant.
Jari says this particularly captivating oil on canvas with a setting of sage-green Spanish moss and cerulean skies with pink blushed clouds can take on the appearance of stained glass for those who watch it long enough. But the subjects within the setting do not attend a joyous occasion. Dozens gather in the clearing of a cypress forrest under the power of an enslaved preacher or exhorter. The plantation owner’s are distant within the picture and almost unnoticeable. The story is clear. After a life of servitude, freedom arrives for this particularly diseased individual in death.
“It’s dated 1860 and is one of a series of 12 paintings that Antrobus intended to complete about life in the Antebellum south. Two were completed and only one survives and we are fortunate enough to have it here at the Historic New Orleans Collection,” says Jari.
Antrobus was a native of England, born in the 1830’s. Slavery had been abolished in England in 1833 and it was a very new experience for him to come to the American South and to witness plantation slavery in it’s prevalence.
The life of the slave was certainly was consumed by labor, however, it can be easy to forget that “slaves” were actually enslaved people. The enslaved had a culture, souls, and emotions and their experienced shapened newer generations of blacks and Americans as a whole. The way we grieve is a tradition that is the most sincere. Jari looks at the painting and saying that “It covers a very intimate scene on a plantation. Probably a scene that he witnessed time and again, as Antrobus traversed through the river parishes; the great plantations along river road.”
You can see the future glistening in the horizon as Jari says, “in the painting you can see a burgeoning cityscape or a river town. It is possibly New Orleans or possibly Natches, Mississippi.”
Jari says, he like the painting “because of it’s scale and because of the emotion. I think that grief and attendance at a funeral is something that we can all relate to. I think it is a very different image than we are used to seeing of slavery in the antebellum south.” The painting can be many things. For me, it struck me as a lesson, that during the most dehumanizing trials of life, spirituality of any sort can be the very thing that keeps us going or at least keeps us human.