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Part 4: 1831-1865

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Historical Documents
Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square
1819

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Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square

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Over a period of a decade, artist John Lewis Krimmel painted a number of scenes that chronicled the changing composition of Philadelphia's Independence Day celebrants.

By 1819, the year in which Krimmel exhibited Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, the event had become a largely white working class celebration, in contrast to earlier years when blacks and whites from all social classes gathered in the square facing Independence Hall. The 1819 painting depicts a festive crowd of white soldiers, merchants and citizens, assembled at tables and under tents, while a lone black boy runs away.

An earlier version of the celebration, first shown by Krimmel at the 1812 annual exhibit of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was the first example of fine art to take the Fourth of July celebration as its subject. Originally entitled "View of Centre Square on the Fourth of July," the painting symbolized the growing stratification of Philadelphia society by showing well-defined clusters of people: wealthy men and women in classical poses; country folk who gawk at a nude statue; a Quaker family; and an assortment of customers buying fruit from an old woman at a table. Although a well-dressed group of blacks is included, in actuality few of them dared join the Independence Day crowd after 1805, when they were driven away by a white mob.

A contemporary reviewer praised both the "familiar and pleasing...representation" and Krimmel as "no common observer of the tragi-comical events of life that are daily and hourly passing before us."3

In 1813 black sailor, entrepreneur and activist Paul Cuffe wrote, "It is a well known fact, that black people, upon certain days of publick jubilee, dare not be seen after twelve o'clock in the day, upon the field to enjoy the times; for no sooner do the fumes of that potent devil, Liquor mount into the brain, than the poor black is assailed like the destroying Hyena or the avaricious Wolf! I allude particularly to the FOURTH OF JULY! -- Is it not wonderful, that the day set apart of the festival of Liberty, should be abused by the advocates of Freedom, in endeavouring to sully what they profess to adore."4

Image Credit: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania




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Related Entries:
Memoir of Captain Paul Cuffee, Liverpool Mercury
Forten letter to Cuffe





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