Thomas Satterwhite Noble

Historical Marker #1780 in Fayette County remembers native Kentucky artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble.

The study of history occasionally introduces us to individuals that defy convention. These people remind us of the importance of avoiding stereotypes and that not everyone in a certain category sees things the same way. A good example is Kentucky artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble.

Noble was born in 1835 into a slaveholding Lexington, Kentucky family that owned a hemp plantation and rope manufacturing business. Educated at Transylvania University, Noble went to Louisville to study under Samuel Woodson Price in the early 1850s. The aspiring art student next moved to New York and then on to St. Louis, and in 1856 he moved to Paris, France to study under Thomas Couture. Noble returned to the United States before the Civil War, and settled again in St. Louis. When the war broke out, he joined a Missouri Confederate cavalry regiment.

Noble returned to St. Louis following the war and then moved to New York where he took up African Americans as the primary focus of his works. One of Noble’s earliest paintings is "The Last Sale of Slaves in St. Louis," originally painted in 1865, but repainted in 1870, after the first copy was damaged. Another early painting (1867) is "Margaret Garner," which illustrates the true story of a northern Kentucky slave who had escaped on the frozen Ohio River only to be cornered in a Cincinnati house by slave catchers where she murdered one of her children rather than see it returned to slavery.

In 1868, Nobel painted "The Price of Blood," which depicts a mixed race son, being sold by his slave owning father. In addition, Noble painted a number of other slave related images. His view of "John Brown's Blessing," while historically inaccurate in content and setting, shows the compassion and understanding that Brown demonstrated throughout his life toward African Americans. Whatever may have been Noble's primary motivation these images painted during the troubling years of Reconstruction are hardly what one would expect from a former Confederate that was raised on slaveholding Kentucky plantation.

Noble went on to serve as the head of the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati, which eventually became the Art Academy of Cincinnati. One of his students was famous Frankfort, Kentucky water-color artist Paul Sawyier. Noble retired in 1904, and passed away in New York City in 1907.