The price of blood

February 5, 2004 at 11:53 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

I learned about Paul Williams through an article in a shelter magazine. Williams was the “architect to the stars” who at mid-century designed houses for Lucille Ball and other luminaries. He was also the architect of the futuristic-looking Los Angeles airport building. And he was African American. His early childhood sounds nearly Dickensian (orphaned at age 4, brought up by strict foster parents, sent to a white school where he was the only “negro”), and it also has elements of the classic teleology set forth by Giorgio Vasari, the first modern writer of artists’ biographies: young boy with no advantages whatsoever is discovered drawing on a rock, in the sand, on a discarded paper, by a passer-by or other influential stranger who takes it upon himself to mentor the protege, and the rest, as they say, is istoria. Which is a bit like what happened with Williams, who was introduced to the possibility of an architectural career by a builder. Williams had tremendous skill in drawing, sketching, and draughtsmanship. He also felt acutely the prejudice many of his white clients had against Africans, and so he learned to draw upside down: that skill allowed his clients to sit across from him at a table and see his designs, vs having to sit next to him. His high school counsellor had tried to dissuade him from an architectural career thus:

“Negroes will always need doctors and lawyers, but they build neither fine homes nor expensive office buildings.” [his high school counsellor advised] “Who ever heard of a Negro being an architect?”, the counselor added. (…)
In a July 1937 article in
American magazine titled “I Am a Negro”, Williams acknowledged his feelings about racially-restricted housing that was prevalent in Los Angeles at the time. Referring to a client’s country house in “one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world,” he wrote: “Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening, leaving my office, I returned to my small, inexpensive home in an unrestricted, comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles…because…I am a Negro.”

In the same article, he wrote: “Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than as a member of a race. Occasionally, I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole I have been treated with an amazing fairness.”

Sensitive to clients who might feel uncomfortable sitting next to him, Williams perfected the skill of drawing upside down. This enabled clients review his designs right-side-up as he sketched them from across the table. [More….]

Reading about Williams I kept thinking of a Reconstruction-era painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, The Price of Blood (1868), on the right. Noble had gone to Paris to study painting in the studio of Eduard Manet’s teacher, Thomas Couture, but I don’t know if he came into contact with Manet during his time there. I like to speculate that perhaps they did, that they discussed modern subject matter. Manet painted Luncheon in the Studio in Paris around the same time that Noble worked on The Price of Blood in America, and it always struck me that both paintings have a similar moral-sexual subtext (although Manet’s painting is much better than Noble’s, whose style is mired in conventionalism). Couture had tried to get his pupils to paint history paintings, but perhaps in spite of him, they took modern life as the history that mattered. Manet’s picture shows a young man, Leon Leenhoff, who was quite possibly an illegitimate son born to Suzanne Leenhoff and Manet’s father, a respected judge, and who was passed off as Suzanne’s little brother. Manet later married Suzanne and adopted Leon as his stepson. Noble’s painting shows an equally scandalous — and socially even more corrosive — filial relationship being subjected to an economic transaction that tore America apart. By the early 1860s, Noble would have learned that Couture was most famous for his painting The Romans of the Decadence, and that American artists had already spent considerable energies in building the country up as the new Manifest Destiny course of empire inheritor. Stylistically, Noble might have understood that huge history paintings like Couture’s or Cole’s weren’t going to allow him to proceed, although he clearly had some problems finding a new style. If Manet’s Luncheon is quintessentially “modern cool,” Noble’s picture is still 19th century sentimentally “hot,” but it tells quite a story. We see three men arranged in a shallow plane near the foreground. Only one is seated, a distinctly well-off older bourgeois who could easily have been at home in a Paris apartment. He has a sovereign manner, his casual placement on the chair suggesting ownership and ease, but with a claw-like pinkie resting and simultaneously pointing at a piece of paper on the table. He stares out at you, the viewer, forcing some kind of engagement. In the middle stands a man reading a piece of paper he holds in his left hand, his right hand resting on the table, a hand seemingly ready to protect the pile of gold coins carefully stacked and counted out before him. At the far left of the picture stands a young barefoot man, his feet a marked contrast to the elegant shoes and spats worn by the seated man. The young man strikes a slightly ridiculous pose, and Noble can’t quite pull it off: his expression looks merely annoyed, like a petulant Blue Boy after Gainsborough, when he should be expressing so much more. He is the illegitimate son of the rich seated man, he is of African descent through his slave mother, and he has just been sold to the contract-reading slave trader who is checking the paperwork before counting out the payment. This was modern American history in some parts of the country, and when I saw Paul Williams’s pale skin in some photographs and read about those white clients incapable of sitting next to him, I thought of The Price of Blood.


  1. I enjoyed your comments on Thomas Noble’s “The Price of Blood,” which is part of the permanent collection of the Morris Museum of Art. What can’t be seen well in the digital image of this work is the representation of a painting in the upper right corner. It is a Biblical scene depicting the sacrifice of Isaac. With more than a touch of irony, Noble contrasts Abraham’s offering of his son to God to the slaveholder/father’s ‘sacrifice’ of his son.

    Comment by Patricia Moore Shaffer — March 11, 2005 #

  2. Thanks for that pointer, Patricia! The Morris Museum is very lucky to have this picture — it’s an amazing painting, even if the son looks a bit too much like one of Greuze’s offspring. But the fact that Noble even attempted this kind of subject is tremendous — I can’t think of anything comparably interesting or exciting or immediate in 19th century Canadian painting, for example. Certainly in the 20th century more interesting stuff surfaces, but I can’t think of a 19th century example.

    Comment by Yule Heibel — March 12, 2005 #

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