The Drop Sinister

This painting has been haunting me.

"The Drop Sinister - What Shall We Do With it?" by Harry Willson Watrous

We saw it this weekend at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, and I took a picture of it because it struck a chord with me, although I didn’t really stop to consider which chord had been struck. The plaque next to the painting said that it is the first known portrait of an American interracial family, and aside from noticing that the family looked very unhappy, I didn’t give it much thought.

It was only when I was uploading my pictures to my computer and idly mulling over the title of the work that I realized what it was about the painting that had hit me in the museum: The “drop” to which the title referred was blood. In particular, the African blood of the little girl. That chilled me: Watrous was saying that part of the little girl’s genetic make-up was sinister. Was he a racist? Or was he making a point? I dropped everything and started Googling.

It’s nearly 100 years since Watrous painted The Drop Sinister. There are thousands of interracial families in the United States. Our president is a man of mixed race. But despite the fact that there is really no such thing as racial purity, there is still a stigma associated with mixed blood. When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I heard malicious whispers about people who married outside of their own races and had children. In college, I studied colonial attitudes about mixed races in Latin America as part of my major. And recently I read Kim McLarin’s excellent novel “Meeting of the Waters,” which chronicles a  romance between a black woman and a white man. It’s not an easy book to read, but it got into my head.

So I was interested to find out as much as I could about Watrous and the Drop Sinister. I didn’t find much. The painting was done around 1913 and apparently caused a stir when it was exhibited at the New York Academy of Design. People thought – as I did – that the painting depicted a mixed marriage, which was illegal in many southern and western states at the time. But W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote about it in the N.A.A.C.P.’s journal, The Crisis, in 1915, had a different idea about what was going on in the picture:

The people in this picture are all “colored;” that is to say the ancestors of all of them two or three generations ago numbered among them full-blooded Negroes. These “colored” folk married and brought to the world a little golden-haired child; today they pause for a moment and sit aghast when they think of this child’s future.
What is she? A Negro?
No, she is “white.”
But is she white?
The United States Census says she is a “Negro.”
What earthly difference does it make what she is, so long as she grows up a good, true, capable woman? But her chances for doing this are small!
Because 90,000,000 of her neighbors, good Christian, noble, civilized people are going to insult her, seek to ruin her and slam the door of opportunity in her face the moment they discover “The Drop Sinister.”

How does DuBois know all this about the painting and the family? No such information was available to me at the museum where this piece of art is displayed and a cursory Google search revealed nothing much. The only article that I did find was the 1915 piece written by DuBois. DuBois must have spoken to the artist, who is a mystery to me.

Harry Willson Watrous is one of those rare figures who does not have a Wikipedia page, but there are many short biographies of him on the Internet. He was an academic portrait painter, and at the time he completed The Drop Sinister, his work seemed to consist mostly of decorative work: Pretty young women reclining in elaborate costumes, and still lifes. He doesn’t seem to have painted any other political pieces. I have no idea what motivated him to create The Drop Sinister. I wish I did.

21 thoughts on “The Drop Sinister

  1. I’m not even sure that this really is a family: where are we getting that information?
    An interesting fact about the painting is that the man is a minister, the cross stands over the scene, and he is reading “The Christian.” He’s the subject of the painting in the center and looking out at us spectators. The woman, who is certainly the mother of the child, looks to the minister for an answer, and he is befuddled. The girl looks up to her mother with a few questions.
    Reading this painting just with what we are presented, three people are doing some questioning here. Abe Lincoln is on the wall, and a motto as well. I don’t think I can agree with either the plaque on the wall which states that it’s the first portrait of a multi-racial family, or with Dubois’ idea about the generations of Negroes culminating in each of these characters.

    • Based on the artist’s other work, I do believe that the sitters were posed. But all the props, including the portrait of Lincoln and the quote over the mantelpiece, as well as the title of the piece, makes me think we’re meant to assume it’s a family. I did notice that the man is a minister and I have a couple of theories about why Watrous might have made him a minister, but those theories aren’t very well fleshed out right now.

  2. I love this type of painting…more that a portrait, it’s a genre piece, telling a story. We have to be the detectives! Very cool.

  3. I saw this painting a few days ago and came across this web site when I was trying to find out more about the painting. I think that the title “Drop Sinister” refers to “sinister” less in the sense of evil/threatening than as a reference to the phrase “bar sinister.” Not that this is a lot better, but in heraldry the “bar sinister” referred to out-of-wedlock origins, of which there was a great deal, given the sexual appetites of princes and kings. If, as Wikipedia says, Sir Walter Scott originated the term “bar sinister,” then it is highly likely that most educated viewers 100 years ago would have been familiar with this reference, since Scott’s works were widely read. I know that my first reaction was to see this title as a play on “bar sinister,” and I am less than 100, though not a lot less!

  4. Very interesting. Isabel Allende´s most recent book “Island beneath the sea”, set partially in New Orleans, touches lightly on the subject of mixed raced families. This is a particularly interesting subject for a book, I concur that you should go deeper into it. I know very little about the painter. But I wonder if he wasn´t also looking at the fringe elements of society at that time. His painting “Just a couple of girls” of 1915, at Brooklyn Museum has “a touch of love among two women”. Harry W Watrous certainly deserves to be better researched. Go for it. Thank a lot for an interesting, very interesting post.

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  6. I saw the painting in the late 90’s and it too, haunted me. The strange thing is, this is not the painting that I saw with that particular title. In the prior painting, the woman is wearing a long, old-fashioned gown, and the man is sitting at the left end of the table. The picture of Abe Lincoln is on the left side, and much smaller. This is such a mystery. I have an excellent memory and am very visually oriented. I have no explanation. Could there have been two versions of this painting?

  7. Your commentary is very interesting. Re: “I have no idea what motivated him” see the section “Miscegenation” in Chapter1 (Empires and Races) of Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.” Absolutely fascinating and insightful. By coincidence I began to read this book just recently, and today for the first time happened to see the painting “The Drop Sinister.” In googling the painting (trying to figure out “what in heck…?”), I came across your post here.

  8. I saw this painting in the Portland museum a few years ago. The mystery of its title made me seek out the head of the museum for an explanation (which stunned me, btw.) What I love about it is that it is exciting art that leaves you with questions just like, “What exactly was behind the searing obsession that Thomas Mann put into the schoolteacher on vacation in ‘Death in Venice’?” and for sure this HUGE (to me) bafflement: “What did the lyricist have in mind as not doing in Meatloaf’s ultra-passionate song “I Would Do Anything for Love but I Won’t do THAT!” The opinions of others never quite satisfy me but the exquisite puzzle is intriguing, ongoing….and makes the artwork linger in your thoughts. Wow, so clever (whether intended or not)!

  9. Thanks for posting this. I was wondering who this man is because I am going to the CAA Annual Conference this Feb, and someone is giving a presentation on his artwork.:

    “The Drop Sinister: Harry Watrous’s Visualization of the ‘One Drop Rule’”
    Mey-Yen Moriuchi, La Salle University

    If you happen to be in the city then, here is more info:

    • Thank you so much for letting me know about this. It’s great to know that there’s been more research done on Watrous and his art. I don’t know if I’ll be able to attend, but I’ll be watching the internet to see if anyone writes about the presentation.

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  11. I think there is a plaque next to the painting now, explaining that the people are representing an upper middle class American family. The man, who is technically black because of fairly recent black ancestors, has been able to pass as white because his ancestry has not been closely checked. The woman’s ancestry is white. He has just read an article in the newspaper about the then-new census laws, which require him to register as black. The portrait of Lincoln is a sarcastic reminder that no matter how much money or education they acquired, little had really changed for black people. They were still considered second class citizens.

  12. Thank you A.J. for your post. We’ve just been to PMA yesterday and found this painting to be one of the most intriguing.We thought the painting represented a family and from the comments we heard around us this is how it seems to be received by most viewers. It certainly helps to know the historical background of the times it was painted in. The census mentioned in some comments above seems a plausible reason for the painting’s origin. I find it interesting that the man stares straight into the viewer’s eyes asking him/her the question contained in its title. I believe that both the Lincoln’s picture on the wall and the name of the newspaper show a challenging and maybe even a slightly mocking attitude of the painter toward the viewing public “If you are a true Christian and a democrat, why is race still an issue? And what or who is sinister here?” Very engaging. And how our responses change/not change over time. Cannot believe this painting is so little known.
    PS. There was definitely no plaque with the detail described by S. Cressey (see post above) placed around the painting in May 2016. Only the title, the author, and the media used. If it had been there in 2015 I would not understand why it would have been removed a year later. Hmm, even more enigmatic… 😉

    • The painting was moved to the second floor last year. Maybe the plaque was removed then. Or it may have been something I looked up and my memory might be playing tricks on me.

  13. Fascinating discussion! I just saw the painting today (21 May 2016) & there was no plaque or any explanation, which led me here via Google. I had no inkling that there was a racial issue involved, only that the man was extremely perturbed and the woman remote with a not so latent anger or resentment apparent. I wondered if sufferage was the underlying issue & thought the bracelet on the woman’s left arm might be significant. But sounds like I was barking up the wrong family tree and the blood reference eluded me. Thanks to everyone for their contributions to the discussion.

  14. Guys, I just want to let you all know that I love this conversation we’ve been having here. I published this post six years ago, and the fact that people keep coming here to talk about The Drop Sinister (which still fascinates me) makes me so happy. Thank you all for commenting and keeping the conversation going.

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