Trial by Jury
American, active 1849
Trial by Jury, 1849
Oil on canvas
88.9 x 121.9 cm (35 x 48 inches)
Gift of Edith Jackson Green and F. Ellis Jackson 43.346
(April 6, 2007 – January 6, 2008)(March 23 –August 12, 2018)
These two works offer starkly different perspectives on the American justice system, informed by the 160 years separating them, and their emphasis on white or African American subjects.
The painting takes place in a barn and depicts a trial, presumably of the figure leaning back in the Windsor chair. The artist’s name is likely a pseudonym for “a Whig,” declaring an affiliation with the Whig Party. This work was made just after the 1848 presidential election, which had been won by the Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, a slave-holding Southerner. Whigs from the North and South soon became bitterly divided over slavery, and the party collapsed entirely leading up to the Civil War. This painting may represent an effort to deflect attention toward the less serious or troubling affairs of the time.
The sharply critical tone of Johnson’s work is emblematic of the more active role political considerations have played in American art since the 1950s. Johnson spraypaints crosshairs over a model representing Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), the first African American Supreme Court justice, underscoring the racial injustices Marshall challenged as a lawyer and a judge. It also recalls the logo for the hiphop group Public Enemy, whose song “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is referenced in the work’s title. The song presents the perspective of an African American man imprisoned as an antiwar protestor.
[see also: 2012.133.3.5]
Selection VIIAmerican Painting from the Museum's Collection, c.1800-1930
Contributions byMandel, Patrica C.F.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1977
TypeMonographs and Collections