Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

  • William H. Johnson, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ca. 1944, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.52

Luce Center Label

In Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a line of fashionable angels welcomes a man to heaven. Having arrived by a horse-drawn chariot, he greets them with open arms. In the Bible, the prophet Elijah was carried to heaven by a chariot of fire at the end of his life. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is also the title of an African American spiritual of slave origins. The song is attributed to Wallace Willis, a slave from Oklahoma; his inspiration was the land beyond the Ohio River. Like other songs of resistance, the spiritual uses encoded language that would have been familiar to slaves. "Home" could mean either heaven or land of freedom. The lines "I looked over Jordan and what did I see/Coming for to carry me home/A band of angels coming after me" refers to the town of Ripley, Ohio, which was a station on the Underground Railroad. The town is located on a hill across the Ohio River, a difficult point of the journey to freedom. At this juncture, the fugitive slaves had to wait for helpers to arrive before they could continue. The artist, William H. Johnson, chose a subject that would have been familiar to African Americans, fashioning traditional religious symbols into an image meant for this community.

Luce Object Quote
"And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind unto heaven." 2 Kings 2:11, King James Version "Swing Low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home Swing low, sweet chariot Coming for to carry me home I looked over Jordan and what did I see Coming for to carry me home A band of angels coming after me Coming for to carry me home"
Title
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Artist
Date
ca. 1944
On View
Not on view.
Dimensions
28 5/8 x 26 1/2 in. (72.6 x 67.2 cm)
Credit Line

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Mediums
Mediums Description
oil on paperboard
Classifications
Keywords
  • Figure group – female
  • Landscape – river
  • Ethnic – African-American
  • Figure male – full length
  • Animal – horse
  • Architecture – vehicle – carriage
Object Number
1983.95.52
Palette
Linked Open Data
Linked Open Data URI
Audio

Born: Florence, South Carolina 1901–Died: Central Islip, New York 1970

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

about 1944, oil on paperboard

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