Doting relatives likely fostered Miller's earliest attempts at drawing. More unusually, he continued to sketch during his thirty-year practice of the carpentry trade in York. He gratified his neighbors' pride by recording matters of local historical interest, while he amused (and perhaps occasionally chagrined) them by capturing their foibles, contretemps, and escapades. As a lifelong bachelor, he lived with his father and mother until their deaths in, respectively, 1822 and 1830. Then, apparently at least modestly financially secure, he increasingly indulged a yen to roam, including frequent trips to Christiansburg, Virginia, where his brother Joseph Miller was a physician.
None of Miller's numerous sketchbooks was ever published or, probably, intended for publication. Instead, the sketchbooks served as personal diaries crammed with often disparate, disconnected, and run-on texts, poems, marginal notes, and drawings. His Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia was received by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg in 1978, but this "book" may never have been organized as such—it begins and ends with European scenes, for instance—and at the stipulation of the donor, curators removed its twentieth-century binding, leaving the pages loose. The Virginia Historical Society owns another collection of his drawings.
Many of Miller's Virginia sketches of buildings, farms, and townscapes are peopled with small figures, some of them African Americans, usually shown attending to tasks. In two sketches, African Americans are again depicted as working, but assume more prominent roles in the pictures (Miller's surrounding text makes no allusion to them, however). Frequently, Miller crammed pages with images and texts that have no obvious, direct relationship to one another—for example, one page includes a believable-looking but isolated and unexplained image of a man hoeing tobacco. Miller's interest in quirks of nature likely prompted his sketch of an African American servant who was also a dwarf.
The artist rarely showed African Americans prominently engaged in hard manual labor. An exception is an image in which two African Americans wield a crosscut saw while a white man—obviously an overseer or supervisor—stands between them. Racial interactions are also more fully explicated here, for the white man presumably represents half of a commonplace master-slave (or possibly white–free black) relationship. The overseer's waistcoat, frock coat, and top hat designate him a watcher, not a worker, while the staff in his hand and his nonchalant-but-domineering pose amplify his authoritarian role. Clearly, he is not about to break a sweat. But lest one dismiss the scene as stereotyping, Miller realistically complicates its most obvious theme by including a second white man in the foreground, one who does share the sawyers' physical labor. The ax-man at least enjoys a lack of supervision, while a third white man pursues the skilled craft of shingle-making in the background. Miller emphasizes the credibility and ubiquity of the race- and role-mixed grouping by labeling the whole an "Every day's observation."
Similarly, Miller's depiction of slaves being sold at auction in Christiansburg reveals little pathos. In his description, Miller cites specific names—"Miss Fillis and child, and Bill, Sold at publick Sale in May 12th Christiansburg, Montgomery County"—increasing the likelihood that he recorded an actual event. But he fails to tell us whether Bill is the father of Fillis's child and whether the two adults went to the same buyer. Incongruously (or, perhaps, courageously), Fillis smiles, while Bill's proudly upraised head seems to belie his hands' attitude of supplication.
May 3, 1796 - Lewis Miller is born in York, Pennsylvania, the tenth and last child of John Ludwig Miller and Eve Catharine Miller.
September 15, 1882 - Lewis Miller dies in Christiansburg.
1978 - Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, a bound collection of sketches by Lewis Miller (1796–1882), is acquired by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Luck, B. Lewis Miller's Virginia Slavery Drawings. (2012, November 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lewis_Miller_s_Virginia_Slavery_Drawings.
- MLA Citation:
Luck, Barbara. "Lewis Miller's Virginia Slavery Drawings." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 1, 2012 | Last modified: November 15, 2012