From New Orleans Slave to European Sculptor: The Surprising Story of Eugène Warburg

This week, Paul Kaplan, Professor of Art History at Purchase College, delivered his online presentation The Other Warburg: Aby’s African American Cousin Eugène and his Career as a Sculptor in 1850s Europe as part of the Warburg Institute’s free online lectures

In this blog post, Bill Sherman, Director of the Warburg Institute, tells us more about the presentation and reflects on the vital research to be done (at the Warburg and elsewhere) on the history of race and representation.

On Tuesday evening, the Warburg Institute’s (now virtual) Director’s Seminar was delivered by Paul Kaplan, professor of art history at Purchase College, in the State University of New York. It is now available on the Warburg’s YouTube channel and can be viewed below. Kaplan has just published an eye-opening book on Art, Race and Transatlantic Culture in the Civil War Era; and in Tuesday’s talk, he told us about one of his study’s most surprising figures, the sculptor Eugène Warburg (c.1826-1859).

This subject had double relevance for our audience at the Warburg Institute. First, there is the family connection. Remarkably enough, this African-American artist (born into slavery around 1826) was a distant cousin of Aby Warburg, the German art historian who founded of our Institute. And second, the talk took place on the very day that many American arts and entertainment institutions designated ‘Blackout Tuesday’ – pausing their work as a show of solidarity to those protesting the shocking death of yet another unarmed black man by the police (this time in my home town of Minneapolis). Many cultural leaders have spoken out, using their institutions and collections to draw attention to the ongoing legacies of racism. The Director of the Smithsonian, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch, made a particularly passionate appeal to the lessons that need to be learned from history: ‘History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society—but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.’

Paul’s work has provided a haunting glimpse of a life so strange and obscure it has almost been lost from history. He has reconstructed the story of Eugène Warburg – who was born in New Orleans to a German Jewish father and black Francophone mother, and whose promising career as an expat sculptor in Europe brought him into contact with both pro-slavery American diplomats in Paris and the leading transatlantic abolitionists in London. His relationship with Harriet Beecher Stowe led to his popular sculptural representation (one of his few surviving works) of a black character from Stowe’s second anti-slavery novel, Dred, produced in England in 1856.

Uncle Tiff by Eugéne Warburg | Courtesy of Ray Palmer

Paul’s talk, and the story of ‘the other Warburg,’ provides a timely opportunity to draw attention to a major resource for the study of African-American history that has lived at the Warburg Institute for several decades but is far too little known. It is the great photographic archive and research library devoted to ‘The Image of the Black in Western Art’—created by Dominique de Menil in the 1960s as a response to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. It provided the materials for the ongoing series of books, produced under the auspices of Harvard University. When Menil’s collection left Paris it came to the Warburg Institute, where we hope new scholars with an interest in the histories of race and representation will find new uses for it during these times when such issues matter, it seems, more than ever.

Bill Sherman

Director, Warburg Institute