It’s among the most iconic paintings in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and among the most reproduced. Charles T. Webber’s The Underground Railroad has illustrated books, magazines, and encyclopedias by the score, and yet it took decades for the museum to accept the painting. One might say that this painting justifies the location of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in our city.
Although Webber was born in New York, he spent most of his artistic career in Cincinnati. His first job involved tinting photographs in a local studio. He helped organize a number of arts organizations and clubs in the Queen City and consequently was well connected in the local arts scene.
It is obvious that Webber possessed some talent. A painting of his was accepted in the 1881 Paris Salon, and local newspapers reported that it was the first painting by an American artist, painted on American soil, accepted by the Salon. (Other American artists had provided work that they painted in Europe.)
Although Webber painted in a variety of genres—landscape, mythology, still life, etc.—he made his living painting portraits and through his studio got to know many significant residents of the Queen City. Levi Coffin, known as the “President of the Underground Railroad,” met Webber after relocating from Indiana to Cincinnati in 1847. Webber painted Coffin’s portrait and also a companion portrait of Coffin’s wife, Catherine.
When the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition was announced—the Chicago World’s Fair scheduled to celebrate Columbus’s arrival in the New World—Webber set about painting his tribute to the Coffins and other “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. It took five years from initial sketches to final canvas. Webber’s painting was accepted for exhibition in Chicago along with some still-renowned artists like Frank Duveneck, T.C. Steele, Douglas Volk, Henry Farny, and others.
Among this august assemblage, Webber’s work stood out. The Daily Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper, published a lengthy article about The Underground Railroad in its issue of July 8, 1893:
“The peculiar strength of the picture, and which undoubtedly calls a halt to the footsteps and signals this out as interesting among the many, is the expression on the different faces.”
Those faces, unlike many other artistic representations of abolitionist activity, were painted from life. As noted, Webber had painted portraits of the Coffins and also one of abolitionist Hannah Haydock, who, although pictured in this image, actually lived in Warren County, the next northern stop of the Underground Railroad.
It’s likely that Webber expected this painting to fetch a good price when the Columbian Exposition ended, but it was not to be. Nearly 20 years later, as Webber lay dying in his home along the Ohio River near Sedamsville, the canvas was still in his possession.
At the close of the Chicago World’s Fair, Webber was nearly 70 years old. His sales declined as younger artists emerged on the scene. Webber’s wife died in 1891 while he was still working on his masterpiece, and he moved in with one of his students, artist Mary Spencer, who eventually became his executrix.
In the years before Webber died, some of his colleagues, led by artist John Rettig, endeavored to collect a fund to purchase The Underground Railroad and present it to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Rettig, according to The Cincinnati Post [April 5, 1911], visited Webber as he lay dying:
“Even with the hand of death on him, Webber recognized his friend. Then his mind wandered. He grasped an imaginary brush in his gaunt hand and pointed to the easel he thought was before him, asking his friend’s advice as to the picture there.”
For a couple of years, Rettig’s fund-raising group had exhibited Webber’s The Underground Railroad at galleries and men’s clubs around Cincinnati in an effort to raise the $10,000 purchase price. With Webber’s death, the canvas was finally hung at the Cincinnati Art Museum, though only on loan while fund-raising continued.
It’s a mystery, given the names associated with Rettig’s committee, why the painting could not have been purchased with the pocket change of half the organization. Among the subscribers were James N. Gamble, of Procter & Gamble; jeweler Loring Andrews; drug store magnate Cora Dow; artist Henry Farny; Judge Alfred K. Nippert; best-selling author William H. Venable; kindergarten pioneer Annie Laws; and other names from the highest echelons of Cincinnati society.
According to Anita Ellis, former curator of decorative arts at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the purchase price wasn’t fully collected until 1927. That year, the painting was officially donated to the Cincinnati Art Museum. By then, Webber had been in his grave at Spring Grove Cemetery for 16 years. Mary Spencer died in 1923 at the age of 87.
Having acquired The Underground Railroad, the Art Museum almost immediately got rid of it. According to Anita Ellis [Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, Summer 1979]:
“On June 27, 1930, the painting was lent to Woodward High School, Cincinnati. It was returned on April 10, 1961, and has remained at the Museum since.”
Ellis, in her analysis of the painting, determined that Webber must have actually visited Levi Coffin’s suburban “farm” between Avondale and Walnut Hills to portray that location as the scene depicted in the painting.
Restoration of the painting in the late 1970s emphasized the historic aspects of the painting rather than its somewhat confusing artistic qualities. Still, The Underground Railroad stakes Cincinnati’s claim as a beacon of hope—however dim—in a very dark time.