TRANSATLANTIC VISIONS

Today we understand the origins of Edward W. Clay’s satiric concepts, and they are trans-Atlantic rather than local in their proportion. Clay’s visual vocabulary of race, as exemplified by "Life in Philadelphia," grew as much out of the artist’s engagement with his peers in London and Paris as it did from his encounters with African Americans in Philadelphia. The recent discovery of Clay’s early watercolors and scrapbooks produced during his travel in France toward the end of the 1820s offer a window into the trans-Atlantic influences that gave birth to Clay’s subsequent depictions of black Americans.

This European sojourn opens the door to new understandings of the “Life in Philadelphia” series, which Clay published shortly after returning to that city from Paris in 1828 and this re-reading of Clay’s images promises to rewrite the history of race and racism in America. Copying and reinterpretation have long been part of the culture of caricature and we see evidence of Clay’s study of Thomas Rowlandson and his borrowings from the Cruickshank brothers. His work also reflects encounters with Edmé-Jean Pigal, Frédéric Bouchot, Achille Deveria and popular series including the Petit Courrier des Dame and Le Bon Genre. Parallels to his contemporary Honoré Daumier are evident. Clay’s sojourns draw attention to how these well-remembered social satirists also took up the black subject, incorporating black men and women into their commentaries on London and Paris in the 1820s.

His images and ideas were a precursor to American minstrelsy and were rooted in a vocabulary of caricature and parody with roots in Europe rather than the United States. However, as his Paris work suggests, Clay’s ideas were born, not only out of antebellum America, but out of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Atlantic world perspective of race and difference.