The family of Roseann, Washerwoman

The Family of Roseann, Washerwoman. Pen-and-ink, Conté crayon, grey and white gouache on wove paper by Edward L. Potthast (PD0162)

PD0162 The Family of Rose Ann, Washerwoman, an illustration for “The Gentleman of the Plush Rocker,” published in The Century Magazine,vol. 63 (January 1901), p. 409-430; signed l.r. in grey wash “E POTTHAST” for Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927). Pen-and-ink, Conté crayon, grey and white gouache on wove paper, mounted on cardboard. Image 20⅛” x 14⅛”; Board (overall) 26 7/8” x 17 5/8“.

COMMENTARY:This engaging image illustrates an imaginary tale from the life of an African American family living in Palmetto Bayou, Louisiana during the late 19thcentury. It bears the title “The Family of Rose Ann, Washerwoman,” and appeared as the “frontispiece” for author Ruth McEnery Stuart’s (1852-1917) lively short story, “The Gentleman of the Plush Rocker”—a regionalist tale that appeared in the January 1902 edition of The CenturyMagazine, of New York.  Is is among the earliest works by the renowned Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927), a Cincinnati native who, by 1900, settled in New York City, as a freelance illustrator,.[i]

Potthast’s early training focused upon developing his skills as a lithographer for illustrating magazines. At the beginning of his professional life in 1896, he relied principally upon line drawings for high-profile magazines such as Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and The Century—in work that ranged from magazine covers to advertisements and posters. He also provided illustrations for special projects supported by those periodicals, such as Mary Ronald’s Century Cook Book. Nonethe;less, he soon began to dabble with progressive painting techniques, and is now remembered as one of the earliest and finest of American impressionists.

Potthast’s early work matured quickly during the late 1890s, as he moved from a linear style to one rendered in rich detail, achieved by layering charcoal, ink, and crayon. Concurrently, he developed a skill for intense observation, which inspired him to produce detailed vignettes to chronicle various aspects of the story told within the larger scene. That skill soon impacted the Impressionist landscapes and marine scenes that emerged from his easel at the end of the century—and attracted an ever-wider following. These made it possible for him to move beyond the commercial aspects of illustration and into the realm of fine art, through which he soon support himself with a growing list of followers and clients.[1]

It remains uncertain when author and artist met one another, or whether the publisher made the introduction. Nonetheless, at the turn of the century, Potthast’s drawings appeared in several of Stuart’s publications.  In addition to “The Gentleman of the Plush Rocker,” he provided scenes for “A Funny Little School”, published in The St. Nicholas Annualfor 1897; “The Women,” which appeared in The Century Magazine, Vol. 61 (1901); and George Washington Jones, a story published by Henry Altemus (Philadelphia, 1903); A discussion near the end of this essay includes two illustrations from those works, to further illumine the artist’s skills, and to underscore how the quality of his work, provided essential images for the rich quality of her literature.

Rose Ann’s story falls within a field of literature that was popular from the 1880s through the 1920s.  The genre fell totally from favor during the Great Depression, and by the time of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, was all but dead. By then, critics viewed the style as mocking not only of the African American race, but also of their dialects.   During the 1970s and ‘80s, the genre attracted attracted growing interest within academic circles, where followers often referenced such stories as “Dialect” or “Regional” fiction.

It is undeniable that many stories were patronizing of African Americans, or mocked their language and culture.  However, as modern historians delineate the broader character of such work, and better understand Stuart and her generation, they comprehend her concerted efforts to accurately record the vocabulary and dialect of the African American community that she knew, as well as the patterns and the subjects of their conversation. Scholars also note that many of the writers, attempted to capture the bald truths of enslavement in the words of those who survived it. She does a brilliant job of observing the double-edged blade of African American humor as a means to craft a viable vision for themselves in a complex era. Indeed, it was an era of conflicting expectations—in which white families brought certain members of the African community into the inner realms of their homes, yet nonetheless, kept them at arms length toward the edge of their society.

Stewart’s story “The Gentleman of the Plush Chair” tells the story of “Rose Ann the Washerwoman” in the combined role of a mother and breadwinner for an African American family in the Reconstruction South, while her husband Napoleaon, “The Gentleman of the Plush Rocker,” minds the children.  The story explores the dynamics of the relationship and the family, and at the same time, seemingly exposes its weaknesses in a courtroom scene. The powerful white judge “Marse Mart” who conducts the trial, hails from a family that previously owned Rose Ann and her people, and oversees a jury that is called to weigh charges of “vagrancy” against Napoleon, as an unproductive member of society.

In contrast to most such stories in American magazines, Stuart and Potthast convey the tale from the perspective of the two African American protagonists, who offer a different perspective of reality from their end of the social spectrum, and in doing so, raises powerful questions about the cultural mores brought together to potentially judge Napoleon’s guilt.

Ruth McEnery Stuart and Edward Potthast work hand in hand to depict a complex African American society, in which they contrast the realities of an African American family, to the idealized bonds that many white southerners in that era imaginedtheir “servants” to have for them.  They render both of the figures with light-hearted yet deep respect for their character–with Rose Ann focused intently on her work at the washtub to earn the family’s living, while Napoleon—wearing his finery—sits half reclined in a plush new Morris chair.  The artist and author work hand in hand to cleverly describe what seem to be great injustices or inequalities—both within the relationship and the wider culture—and acknowledging the irony of the strong female character.

The sensitive rendering of the figures, the emotional authenticity with which he imbues them, and the subtle breadth of action within the scene, indicate his remarkable skills of observation, and suggest that the New York artist likely visited Louisiana time and again to set the stage for the images–though it remains undocumented that he’d traveled there at that point of his life.[2]

Roseann keeps a close eye on her offspring, even as she gazes at her husband.

Author Ruth McEnery Stuart, was a southerner by birth,and obtained a granular familiarity of the culture in the hamlets of Louisiana during her childhood. A native of Arkansas, she moved to New Orleans in 1860 at the age of eight, when her father became Cotton Commissioner for the U.S. Customs.  She began writing in earnest after her husband’s death in 1883, and instinctively drew on her rich experience with the people in the Reconstruction South.  Her work was so engaging, that she quickly found Editors at the New Princeton Reviewand Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, who willingly published her work.

In the climatic scene of the story, Rose Ann addresses the panel of somberly cloaked white men who have assembled to weigh her husband’s innocence or guilt, as a productive member of society.  Contrary to tradition, Stuart tells a compelling story that is contrary to expectations.  Though one would expect ,  the story’s most lines are directed at the Judge himself– Judge Marse Mart, as she calls him—who was a son from the family that formerly owned her. In an unexpected turn of events, in which the Judge is empowered to address to the court, Rose Ann takes the reins, to turn the tide, and underscore for the Jury, with unconventional wisdom, the tremendous debt that the Judge’s family actually owes to hers and her family—and unexpectedly turns the tide:

“ ‘ [My mammy] nu[r]ssed [Marse Mart, the judge, when he was a child] each time befo’ she taken her own chile, ‘ca’se he was white an’ her marster’s son,—an’ her own baby he had to wait, same as a calf has to wait an’ tek de strippin’s. … ‘ “

“This was frightful, but Mart was too much of a man to stop her.  The good breeding which kept silence in the gallery [of whites] was worse than any laughter could have been [if directed at them]. There are times when silence cuts like a knife.”[3]

Rose Ann’s testimony inverts the seeming traditional relationship between black women and white men, and serves in the story, not just as a means to address matters of race, but also, of a woman’s roles in American culture at the time.  The author gave her the moral high ground providing humorous yet pointed lines that capture the experience of formerly enslaved Southerners who had survived into her era. Even so, as testimony proceeds, the Judge charges her husband Napoleon, with vagrancy, for contributing nothing to society.  Once again, Rose Ann addresses a larger issue, to deftly dispute the allegation, and concluding with a tone of indignation, that silences the courtroom:”

“I have known some mighty fine [white] gen’lemen…wha’ lived

on dey wives’ fortunes, [as Napoleon lives on mine] …an’ nobody

‘rested ‘em or called ‘em vagrams [sic]—but, of co’se, dey was


Napoleon then takes the stand to testify in his own defense. He suggests to the court that he is trying to tackle life’s misery, and cites the pleasure he takes in looking after the children—and that they take in him—while Rose Ann is their breadwinner. The narrative portrait that Stuart paints of a doting father in a tightly knit American family upends stereotypes of shiftlessness that dominated white cultures views of blacks in so much literature of the period—and that also taints modern attitudes toward race. Rose Ann notes that the greatest difference between Napoleon and the men of the court, is that the latter “loafs in workin-clo’es, an’ ’Poleon he ain’t disguised in no laborer’s dirt.”[5]  The Gentleman of the Plush Rockerallows its African American protagonists to express dignity in their own terms, rather than those of the jurists. Indeed, the author permits Rose Ann and Napolean to portray the powerful whites as having a duality of expectation based on race.[6]

Potthast’s illustration supports the author’s imagery in its sympathetic rendering of the couple—in Napoleon’s crisp clothing and posture; in his comfortable retreat to the Morris chair; in the palpable romantic tension; in thee couple’s watchful relationship toward the children—all the while Rose Ann earns their living.  She gazes at him with satisfaction, and he basks in the smug contentment of knowing that they have created a comfortable place, in which they define the parameters of life within a challenging world.


Only as the author draws the story to a close, does she reveal that Rose Ann had given the naked child playing with a dog in the foreground a very special name—none other than “Marse Mart”— to honor the judge who had called them to court. To top it off, she has given the child a nickname—the endearing yet tongue-in-cheek moniker, ‘Jedgie.’  The author and her the dominant female character in the story, one again succeeds in turning the tide of perspective, in the final touches on a scene that adroitly illustrates a lively story as an incomparable frontispiece.

WHERE: Potthast’s deft use of tone and line convey the hazy atmosphere and searing heat of a Louisiana afternoon, in the bright white of Napoleon’s crisply laundered cuffs and collar—which pop as brightly as the sunlight reflected from the leaves o’er his head.  In the foreground, the baby that occupies their attention naked as a jaybird—suggests the emotional role that Rose

In the end, Rose Ann  places the seemingly powerful judge in a humble place, to reminder herself of her important role in this world,   that he  to a naked child playing with a puppy, as she had known him long ago when she suckled him, and places the judge’s vulnerability to those assembled.

Label, verso.

MARKS AND LABELS: The artist painted the scene onWinsor and Newton’s Illustration Board”, which bears the company stamp on the verso The reverse also bears the printer’s numerical marks in blue crayon and the original label of The Century CompanyArt Department (Figure X, on the following page. ). The vignette at the top of the label contains tiny cartouches, that on the left inscribed:  “THE/ CENTURY/ CO/ 33 E. 17TH/ ST  N.Y. / FRANK H. SCOTT / PREST.” and that on the right  “ART DEPARTMENT / A. W. DRAKE / SUPT./ LEWIS FRASER / MANAGER.” On either end, the vignette has a swirling ribbon, each naming one of the company’s flagship publications—that on the left inscribed,  “THE CENTURY MAGAZINE” and thaton the right, “ST. NICHOLAS.”

CONDITION: The piece survives in overall fine structural condition, with minor soiling to the paper surface and very minor fraying of the edge on the mounting board’s edge, most notable on the tips of the corners, which have losses. There is minor foxing on the outer two inches of the board perimeter, in an area that would have been covered by an applied mat, which was long ago removed..  The surface of the image has several discreet pin holes, likely the result of push-pins that the artist or editor used to mount the piece for inspection and/or discussion.

PRICE: Upon Request


Potthast’s image of young George Washington Jones echoes some of the complex themes that underlie many such stories in that era.  The story revolves around an orphaned African American boy who is being placed with a southern family who will raise him as a retainer.  Potthast’s image depicts the boy looking back over his shoulder into a mirror, and seeing the image of an ancestor who—when still a child—had had been given before “the war” as a Christmas giftto earlier members of the family.   The story explores the boy’s complex range of thought and emotion, and sets the historical stage in which a complex layering of race and tradition underlie the tales,and underscores their value as windows into the mind of the past.  Indeed, though many such tales are overtly racist in tone, others reveal the era’s complex struggles with matters of race and conscience, and were of no less concern to Rose Ann the Washer Woman, as to Ruth McEnery Stuart, as the author.

Images from two of the stories have found their way into important collections–The Library of Congress has a classroom scene done for“A Funny Little School(Figure X below), and while the Brooklyn Museum, has a haunting likeness of George Washington Jones (Figure X).

Potthast’s image of young George Washington Jones echoes the complex themes that underlie many such stories in that era.  Indeed, McEnery’s article revolves around an orphaned African American boy who is being placed with a southern family, who will raise him as a retainer.  The likeness depicts the boy looking over his shoulder into a mirror, where he sees the image of an ancestor who—when still a child—had been given before “the war” as a Christmas giftto an earlier member of his adoptive “family”.   The story explores the boy’s range of thought and emotions, and reviews the historical stage on which complex layers of race relations and tradition shaped African American life in that era.

Potthast studied with the talented artist Thomas Satterwhile Noble at the McMicken School in Cincinnati, and at the Royal Academy in Munich, and upon completing school, worked for the Strobridge Lithography Company of Cincinnati, where he learned variety of illustration styles and acquired a second education in draftsmanship  with the Strobridge Lithography Company of Cincinnati, founded by Lithographer Elijah Middleton in 1847. Soon purchased by his talented assistant, Hines Strobridge, the company moved to the suburb of Norwood, and eventually to New York City.  It remained in business until 1971.

[1]Stephen May, “Americans at Leisure: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast,” American Arts Quarterly31:1 (Winter 2014). Potthast’s subtle observations of nature and characterlay crucial foundations for his later oil-on-canvas impressionism, in which he relied upon en plein airesketches from the Massachusetts coast and Long Island Sound to produce scenes of crowded, sun-drenched beaches.

[2]The story is set in Palmetto Bayou, the name of an actual place in the Atchafalya Delta. It is probable that the name is borrowed from reality and assigned to anotherlocation, as the actual Palmetto Bayou is accessible almost solely by boat, or by road built atop levees that post-date this story.  A village of Palmetto does exist to the northwest of New Orleans, and this small settlement, or another like it, is a more probable inspiration for the location.

[3]Ruth McEnery Stuart, ‘The Gentleman of the Plush Rocker, “ The Century Magazine, Volume 63, (January,1902), 428.

[4]Stuart, 429

[5]Stuart, 429

[6]Joan Wylie Hall, in “’White mamma…black mammy:’ Replacing the Absent Mother in the Works of Ruth McEnery Stuart” notes that Stuart’s portrayal of Rose Ann is one that “undercuts the serious charge that Stuart was a racist.”