Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Media - 1983.95.52 - SAAM-1983.95.52_2 - 137317
Copied William H. Johnson, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ca. 1944, oil on paperboard, 28 5826 12 in. (72.667.2 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.52

Artwork Details

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
ca. 1944
Not on view
28 5826 12 in. (72.667.2 cm)
lower left in white oil paint: W.H. Johnson stretcher upper left in red: NMAA 1983.95.52 stretcher upper right in black marker: CAT #55
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on paperboard
  • Group
  • Landscape — river
  • Figure group — female
  • African American
  • Animal — horse
  • Figure male — full length
  • Architecture — vehicle — carriage
  • Religion — angel
Object Number

Artwork Description

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.



Media - 2019.29.1 - SAAM-2019.29.1_1 - 138052
Dawoud Bey and William H. Johnson
May 12, 2021August 5, 2021
This focused installation features recently acquired photographs by Dawoud Bey in conversation with a painting by William H. Johnson that refer to the Underground Railroad.