Harry Watrous’ The Drop Sinister

Harry Watrous’, The Drop Sinister, What Shall we Do With it?, is a departure for Watrous, an exploration of the moral and social issue that dominated his day. How were whites and blacks to live together in this new, post-slavery world? 

Watrous was a child during the Civil War. His life was lived in the shadow of a society struggling with the question of race. The struggle was one that was felt on a national level, on a community level, and in homes across the country. For some, the racial struggles of the early 1900’s was deeply personal, a battle to come to terms with their identity in a nation that denied them personhood. 

When a nation officially determines that one drop of black blood means you are a Negro, and condemns you to a life on the sidelines, how does a black or mixed race child process that? Is it any wonder that a white child internalizes the message that their blood is somehow, pure? And so the debates raged. Power, wealth, and position were at stake. The Civil War ended slavery, but ushered in a new era, fraught with tension and division over the ‘Negro problem.’

Sides were taken in Congress, opinion pieces written in newspapers, and fiery sermons preached in America’s churches. People chose sides in the complicated mess that was the United States in those post-war years.

Instead of joining the cacophony of voices shouting opinions, Watrous painted a canvas that holds a mirror up to American society and asks, “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”

Harry Watrous' The Drop Sinister, What are we to do with it

Who was Harry Watrous?

Harry Watrous was an American painter who worked in the late 1800’s and first half of the 1900’s. Classically trained in France, his art spread across several genres including landscapes, nocturnes, still life’s, and portraits.

Born in San Francisco, his father struck it rich during the gold rush, and then moved the family to New York. Watrous had the luxury of studying and pursuing art without worry about his finances. From the first, his talent was recognized, and his art remained popular throughout his long career. At a showing of his work when he was 80 years old, reviewers were still admiring, saying, “Irradiating all that he does is the strong and progressive spirit of the painter himself; a painter who has held fast to the principles in which he believes, yet who has never seemed to fall into inelastic, ossified rote; never, really, to have grown old.”

The work we are going to be examining today, is the only one Watrous ever did that addressed a moral and social justice issue.

Detail from The Drop SinisterWatrous’ The Drop Sinister, What Shall We Do with It

If we were passing this work in a museum, at first glance, we appear to have a pretty family scene. The wife sits in a lovely dress, the handsome husband looks up from his newspaper, and the charming young girl gazes at her mother. Watrous has created an appealing family portrait. One could easily glance at the work and walk on. I suspect that is what most do.

But if we do stop to look, we will see that the scene is not idyllic, but fraught with an underlying tension. If we glance at the title of the work, The Drop Sinister, well, what does that mean? 

Displayed in 1913, The Drop Sinister, is, in many ways, similar to the other work of Watrous. Especially known for his enigmatic, sophisticated women, Watrous created that mystery by clothing them in dark colors, and showing only their profiles.

He has done the same here with the mother in our family grouping.

The Mother

The mother is staring blankly ahead, her face shaded, and seen in profile. We cannot tell what she is thinking, but if we look carefully, we notice the tension in her arm, hand, and neck, the blank, staring expression of her face. The young child, as children do, has sensed her mother’s mood and is concerned. Her wide-eyed gaze is searching for the reason her mother is distressed. 

The FatherDetail from Watrous, The Drop Sinister

The father is black. He is not looking at his family, but gazing out at the viewer with a resigned expression on his face. It’s as if he knows the emotion his wife is feeling, but has accepted it. Wearing a clerical collar, reading a Christian newspaper, with his Bible in front of him, we assume he is a pastor, home after a long day. He’s exchanged shoes for slippers, removed his glasses, and tiredly rests his head on his hand. His gaze is direct, challenging us, as the viewer, to step into his world. 

The year is 1913, just 48 years since the end of the Civil War. The Drop Sinister is considered the first American painting of an interracial couple and their mixed race child. 

As I ponder this work, I wonder if the father has just read something in his paper that has upset his wife, and left him with this tired, resigned expression. I can imagine him saying, “Here we go again.” Is he reading an opinion piece on the ‘Negro problem’? Perhaps a new piece of legislation has been submitted in Congress. Maybe it is just the reprinting of a sermon on the topic of race.

Being an interracial couple at the turn of the century would have been fraught with controversy, even danger.

The Child

At the center of this work is the child. Once we realize that we are looking at an interracial couple, a few pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and then more questions are raised. The child has blond hair.

Genetically, and genetics were at the center of the race debate during these years, a blond child means both parents have some white ancestry.  Since this work was first exhibited, there has been debate about the racial mix, and/or purity of the parents. Many viewers assumed the mother was white. Others, as we will see, believed she, like her husband was mixed race. 

Both mother and daughter can pass as white. But their position is precarious, and in many ways their identity is hard to define. I believe the mother’s tension and alarm is due to concern for her daughter and what she is going to face in life. How will this child’s life be altered due to her mixed blood?

The father is resigned to the difficulties, the mother is distraught, the child is confused.

Initial Reactions to Watrous’ The Drop Sinister

When the painting was first exhibited publicly, it created a stir. The American Art News, calling The Drop Sinister, one of Watrous’ best canvases, noted, “Harry W. Watrous preaches and paints well an interesting sermon on the negro question.”  And, “This study in the fruits of miscegenation…caused an extraordinary amount of discussion, residents of one typically Southern city threatening to wreck the art museum if it was shown there.”

The Image of GodDetail from The Drop Sinister

The theme of the Watrous’ The Drop Sinister, is identity, and what defines us as people. In the larger society of 1913, race defined people in inflexible and artificial ways. Watrous, through this painting, questioned that definition. Behind the family, over the mantle, is a verse from the book of Genesis. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'” Watrous is stating that identity is found in being made in the image of God. All of humanity, in all of its variety, reflects the image of God.

Our understanding of race has changed, I hope, over the last hundred years. At the time of this painting and for centuries before this, scientists believed race was an inflexible identity marker. Each race possessed unchangeable traits. Of course, according to this scientific theory the white race was superior and as such, needed to be kept pure, to not be ‘diluted.’ These theories undergirded the justification for slavery, and after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws. These same theories fueled Hitler’s belief he could create a super race of humans. 

Living during the times of “23andMe,” when we can easily check our DNA, we find that races are far more mixed than any of us could have predicted. We know that race is a fluid concept and, a social construct. If we are created in the image of God, I find the fluidity of race, or the infinite variables related to race, appropriate. God’s image must reflect the many variations, colors, and beauty of humankind.

Anti-Miscegenation Laws

The Loving family who took their case to the Supreme Court and won, ending miscegenation laws in the U.S.

Miscegenation is a term that is rarely used these days, but refers to interracial marriage. Many countries, including the U.S. have had complicated anti-miscegenation laws. They were not only laws regarding marriages between whites and blacks, but whites and Asians, whites and Native Americans, and also blacks and Native Americans, etc. The oddest one I came across was in Maryland where it was illegal for a Black to marry a Filipino. That felt oddly specific, but the theme stands out. Races should not mix. 

As people became accustomed to living in a post-slavery world, the number of laws governing the interactions between the races increased. Whites felt threatened. There was a rising need by many to keep the status quo in place. The prevailing race theory stated that each race contained different genetics and the mixing of those genetics led to inferior genetic strains. These theories were used to create laws that kept the white race pure and separate. 

Modern science has revealed that the human genome is remarkably consistent with racial differences making up only .01 percent of our genetics. Race is more  a social construct than a scientific one. But those social constructs have proven themselves powerful. 

Loving vs. Virginia

In the late 1950’s the Loving’s were arrested for getting married. The husband was white, and his wife was black. The judge ordered prison time or that they move out of Virginia for 25 years. They moved to Washington D.C. Eventually, wanting to return to their home, they reached out to then Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, who connected them with lawyers from the ACLU. The ACLU took their case to the Supreme Court. In 1968, in a unanimous decision, the Court struck down the Virginia law. This decision nullified the anti-miscegenation laws in 15 other states, however, it wasn’t until the year 2000, that Alabama finally removed its own anti-miscegenation law.

Given how recently we have debated these laws, we can see just how strongly people cling to the idea that races need to remain separate. Often humans retreat into a tribal mentality, identifying themselves by those they exclude. Whites have traditionally defined themselves by who they are not. To be white means not to have a drop of black, Asian, Native American etc. blood. To be black was the opposite. I find this whole thought process deeply disturbing. 

Tragic in so many ways, Watrous’ The Drop Snister, focuses on how this affects one family. More specifically, how it affects one child. The blond toddler caught tragically in a no-man’s land, left to question who she is and where she fits. 

U.S. Census

Over the years, the U.S. Census Bureau has had the job of counting and categorizing people. Every decade changes are made in the questionnaire that is used, revealing the politics, science, and prejudices of that decade. Children of black and white couples have been the most debated and recategorized group over the decades of census data collection.

The ‘mulatto’ category was added to the census in 1850. Josiah Nott, a self proclaimed, racial scientist, and slave owner, wanted to collect data to prove that mixing the races created genetically inferior children. His theory was that whites and blacks were actually different species. In 1890 the racial categories included ‘quadroon’ (1/4 black) and ‘octoroon’ (1/8th black).  Unsurprisingly, all of the designations were based on defining who was not white.

Then in 1930 the rule was changed to “a drop of blood.”

While Watrous’ The Drop Sinister was completed well before this official change, as we can see by DuBois comments below, that the idea of a drop of Negro blood being enough to justify exclusion for social privileges was already well established.

We cannot say for sure what prompted Watrous to create this work. He could have been responding to discussions around the census, new laws regarding interracial marriage, or just offensive opinion pieces in the paper. Whatever the prompt, we know that this is the one time, over a lengthy career, that Watrous chose to paint and exhibit a work that addressed a social and moral injustice.

W.E.B. DuBois’ response to Watrous’ The Drop Sinister

W.E.B. DuBois, the black civil rights activist, and one of the authors of The Negro Problem, (published in 1903) saw The Sinister Drop, and his comments on the painting sum up the tragedy.

The people in this picture are all “colored;” that is to say the ancestors of all of them two or three generations ago numbered among them full-blooded Negroes. These “colored” folk married and brought to the world a little golden-haired child; today they pause for a moment and sit aghast when they think of this child’s future.”

“What is she? A Negro? No, she is “white.” But is she white? The United States Census says she is a “Negro.” What earthly difference does it make what she is, so long as she grows up a good, true, capable woman? But her chances for doing this are small! Why?

“Because 90,000,000 of her neighbors, good Christian, noble, civilized people are going to insult her, seek to ruin her and slam the door of opportunity in her face the moment they discover “The Drop Sinister.”

Art as social protestBanksy

I’ve always been intrigued by both art and literature as a vehicle for social protest. The subtlety of the storyline in a novel or painting can draw us in, force us to consider a different perspective while our defenses are down. Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath, brought to life the abuses suffered by farmers during the dust bowl. Banksy’s satirical street art employs a dark humor to highlight injustices around the world. Art has always had a subversive edge, questioning and challenging our understanding of ourselves, our identity, and our societies.

Often art does that by simply holding up a mirror. I feel that is what Watrous’ The Drop Sinister does here. He simply shows us an American family, a family struggling with their identity within a culture that rejects them. It can be painful to gaze into that mirror, to consider that the young girl is condemned before she has begun to live, because her blood contains the drop sinister.

Watrous doesn’t force the point. The canvas is not a dramatic, emotional plea, but as we look at that child’s face, we see that the culture we call our own has rejected her. Where does that leave us? Where does that leave her?

The art critic, Joseph Chamberlain, when he saw The Drop Sinister remarked it was, “one of those problem pictures which sometimes move the forces of modern life more powerfully than books or speeches do.”

Concluding Thoughts

Watrous’ The Drop Sinister was first exhibited over 100 years ago, and yet, recent events have shown America still struggles with issues of race. Power, wealth and status are still at the center. Tribal mentalities that encourage us to define ourselves by who we exclude still appeal.

And artists continue to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves more clearly.

Art can sharpen our vision and challenge us to consider what it means to be human. What it means to be made in the image of God.

If you are interested in other works that explore political themes here are two from very different periods of history.

Jacques Louis David painted his Death of Marat during the French Revolution, and Peter Paul Ruben’s painted The Consequences (or Horrors) of War during the 30 years war. Both works give us differing looks on how art and politics collide.

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