Thomas Satterwhite Noble was a classically trained American artist and painter whose career spanned the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. His works range from large dramatic works to portraiture to small placid landscapes. He is particularly well known for his historical works containing sharp political and social commentary. TS Noble is unique among artists of his era in that he was an artist of Southern origin who painted critiques of the institution of slavery. Noble is also well known for helping to establish the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati, Ohio.
TS Noble first began studying painting at age 18 (1852) with Samuel Woodson Price in Louisville, Kentucky. He then attended Transylvania University, in Lexington Kentucky where he continued to study under Price, as well as Oliver Frazier and George P. Healey. Following his university education, TS Noble lived in Paris from 1856-1859 and was taught by Thomas Couture, who he considered his master instructor. He returned to the United States in 1859 intending to launch an independent artistic career. However, with the advent of the Civil War, and as a Southerner, he served in the Confederate army from 1862 to 1865. During the war he continued his art, painting portraits of high level officers and sketching natural scenery.
ARTISTIC AND TEACHING CAREER
Immediately after the war, TS Noble moved to St. Louis and began painting his first anti-slavery painting, “The Slave Mart” (a later rendition was named “Last Sale of the Slaves”). The positive reception of this painting, exhibited in St. Louis, and Chicago, motivated multiple Northern patrons to support his move to New York City. TS Noble was established in New York from 1866 to 1868, and during that time continued painted his best known anti-slavery historical presentations with their strong political and moral commentary. These paintings are: John Brown's Blessing, the execution of an abolitionist; Price of Blood, the selling of a son by his slave owner father; and Margaret Garner, a escaped slave mother killing of her children to prevent their return to slavery. In addition, in 1869, he completed Witch Hill, a condemnation of the Salem Witch Trials from over a century earlier.
In 1869, TS Noble was invited to become the first head of the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati, which was at that time the trade and cultural nexus of the American west. He held this post until his retirement in 1904. During his McMicken tenure, TS Noble trained several other prominent American artists including Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), Willie Betty Newman (1863-1935) and Eli Harvey (1860-1957). TS Noble also spent sabbatical years in Munich, Germany (1881-1883). During the later phase of his artistic career, TS Noble’s work transitioned to genre, allegorical and local landscape subject matter. TS Noble continued painting until his death in 1907, with his last paintings and sketches being land and seascapes of the Bensonhurst shore of Brooklyn, New York.
FAMILY HISTORY AND PERSONAL LIFE
TS Noble was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and raised on a hemp plantation and, thus, saw the effects of slavery firsthand. Presumably this is what informed the scenes of the antebellum South in his works. Noble was descended from early settlers of Kentucky. His grandfather, Elijah Noble, was an active businessman in Lexington and Louisville. Although his father and grandfather owned slaves, TS Noble rejected slavery, presumably as a result of his experiences in Paris and New York which exposed him to progressive thought outside of his upbringing. From this broadening, he felt morally compelled to explore the immorality of the practice and institution.
In 1865, following the Civil War, TS Noble, met Mary Caroline Hogan, the only daughter of John Coates Hogan and Mary Susannah Borron Ainslie Hogan. Mary Caroline was sixteen to Thomas Noble's age twenty-nine. Thomas and Mary courted for over two years while he was painting and expanding his reputation in New York between 1866-1868. They wrote frequently to each other and the couple were married in May 1868. In late 1868, TS Noble accepted a position in Cincinnati to head the newly form School of Design. Over the course of 10 years they had 7 children (6 survived infancy). TS Noble's wife and children often appeared as models in his later paintings.
As we continue to explore the impact of racism and privilege in our society, TS Noble's art remains a unique and intriguing legacy - an artist who transcended his background to paint images that challenge the viewer to shift the lens of from one of sympathy towards the victims of slavery towards criticism of the perpetrators. The discovery of extensive correspondence of TS Noble from 1866-1907 will help expand the understanding and the narrative of this important 19th century American Artist and provide insight into his motivations and artistic philosophy.