This painting has been haunting me.
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.