The piece chosen for this interpretation was “Walking the Chalk”, an oil on canvas painted in 1838 by Charles Deas (1818-1867). At first glance, one might think it’s just a bunch of guys drinking, and one man decided to get up and see if he could still walk a straight line. However, upon careful examination of the painting, there is much more going on than that.
In Britain in 1834, the Parliament voted to free all the slaves in England and its overseas interests. The Act went into effect that year, giving slave owners four years to make other arrangements while keeping their free labor for four years. Four years later, the slaves were free in England. In America the movement to free slaves was heating up. The nation was divided.
If one were to examine this painting closely, the evidence of this national division is apparent. On one side, there are a couple of gentlemen who are dressed well. One is lighting a cigarette, and the other is in a top hat, a sign of wealth, a nice overcoat, and his four fingers are placed aside his nose. This gentlemen’s hand aside his nose really draws a person in, because the fingers are misshapen and pointy, unlike all the other hands in the painting. He looks like he is thumbing his nose. His fingers are pointing up towards an oar and what appears to be a noose. This signifies the landowners who used slaves and didn’t want to give them up. His fingers are pointing to the noose and the oar, pointing the actions of the British on the sea in 1838 to deter the slave trade, and it was the year in Britain all the slaves were freed. He is leaning up against an enclosure with an elderly man who looks like he’s in jail, with a striped shirt and his head poking out of a caged area. This is a symbol indicating the unlawfulness of slavery. He has a finger pointing down to a little dog and an ax. The ax is another symbol of a nation divided, just like the white chalk line. An old man is sitting next to the smoking man. His cane is crooked, and he has one black shoe, and one red and white striped shoe, signifying the American flag and liberty. The crooked cane would not hold a person’s weight. In other words, the argument of the slaveholders can’t stand up on its own anymore.
In the middle of the room is a man, well dressed, but he has a hole in the elbow of his sleeve. He has on formal wear, but he is disheveled, his collar opened, and he has one suspender strap only, on the left side of his body where the hole in the elbow of the shirt is, a symbol of someone who is straddling the line in the debate, between upper class and lower class. Behind him sits a black man. He is shadowed over, but it interesting he is wearing a suit, like a freed slave would in the new south. In the back of him is a window with dark skies and a red curtain.
On the other side of the room, there are three men. They all appear to be either sailors or soldiers, but the difference in class is apparent. The front man is spilling his drink and looks distraught, and it’s interesting to note that the drink is red in color. This, plus the dark skies in the window behind the black man with the red curtain, could all signify the expectation of the impending conflict and blood being spilled. The man next to him is consoling him and looks like he is wearing a soldier’s hat. The man behind them looks like a sea captain. Also, an interesting detail, on the left side of the room, for every upper class, well dressed gentleman, there is one old man on either side of him, surrounded by symbols of the losing battle of the slave owners. Yet, it is not them that suffer from the conflict, according to the artist.
“Walking the Chalk” was such an interesting piece. If one didn’t sit and examine all the interesting details of the country’s division at the time, they would be easy to overlook. One can really connect those details to what was occurring in America in 1838. The artist did a great job in capturing the sentiment of the main debate of the time in the little details.