John Brown Legend

Media - 1967.59.1145 - SAAM-1967.59.1145_2 - 141188
Copied William H. Johnson, John Brown Legend, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, 38 5836 14 in. (98.292.2 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1145

Artwork Details

John Brown Legend
ca. 1945
Not on view
38 5836 14 in. (98.292.2 cm)
lower right in black oil: W.H. Johnson back in upper left center in black grease crayon: PR-140 back upper center in white chalk: 36 x 39 back center in white chalk: PR-140 (written sideways)
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on paperboard
  • Group
  • Figure group
  • Landscape — building
  • African American
  • History — United States — Black History
  • State of being — death — execution
  • Portrait male — Brown, John
Object Number

Artwork Description

Tensions between Northern and Southern states were already high over the issue of slavery when John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry electrified the United States in 1859. The failure of this white abolitionist's revolt deepened the divide. On Sunday night, October 16, Brown (1800--1859) led eighteen men to Harper's Ferry (now in West Virginia), the site of a major armory and railroad junction below the Mason-Dixon Line. As the men secured key locations and took slaveowners prisoner, local militias prepared to fight back. Brown and his compatriots had expected hundreds of enslaved people from the surrounding area to join the abolitionist cause, but few did. Two of the raiders escaped; those captured alive were convicted of treason and sentenced to hang.

Johnson showed Brown, whose hair resembles a halo, being kissed by an African American child. The vignette is based on a story circulated after his execution that Brown paused on his way to the gallows to kiss an enslaved child. Johnson surrounded Brown with portraits of other abolitionists, Brown's fellow raiders, and sympathizers. A landscape in the upper right represents Harper's Ferry; the rifle to his right symbolizes Brown's plan to arm the enslaved.