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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

 
 
 
CHARLES DEAS
American, 1818 - 1867
Walking the Chalk
1838
Oil on canvas

17 3/8 x 21 3/8 inches

 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Arts of North America
 
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Here, in a drinking game called "walking the chalk," a drunkard is challenged to see whether he is sober enough to walk in a straight line marked on the tavern floor. The work brilliantly expresses two major themes that dominated early American genre paintings: the growing concern about divisions between the North and South in the pre-Civil War years, and the social interactions among ordinary Americans in public places.

This lively tavern scene by American painter Charles Deas is rich with hidden meanings that audiences would have understood in the 1830s. The figure of the con man "thumbs his nose" (as much a sign of indignation in the 19th century as it is today) and invites the viewer to question the scene as a scam. Although commonly a sign of fidelity, the slouched dog may refer to the popular phrase "drunk as a dog," raising concerns about the excessive consumption of alcohol that would culminate in the temperance movement. The issue of slavery is suggested by the presence of the African American straddling the line, expressing the mounting apprehensions about national unity and balance as states entered the Union as either slave-holding or free. Such is the stuff of 19th-century American genre paintings that their potential meanings may be endlessly discussed and debated, the very feature of U.S. democracy that this art form aimed to celebrate.