John Brown in the picture resembles Goliath in the Bible, a symbol of war. The painter depicted him this way because he was of the opinion that the only way to end slavery in Kansas was through armed insurrection. Goliath in the Bible was a philistine warrior whom the Israelites feared because of his strength as well as gigantic stature. Another symbolic feature that could have inspired Curry’s depiction of John Brown was the loud and abrasive style that is written of Goliath in the Bible. This is not to say that John Brown was abrasive and loud, but the painter could be suggesting that not only was the abolitionist opinionated, but he was quite vocal in addition to being fearless about his stance.
In addition, John Brown holds a Bible with his left hand and a sharps rifle in his right. The Bible has the Greek letters Alpha and Omega inscribed in it. It is noteworthy that besides once harboring an ambition to be a Christian minister, John Brown’s pre-war moments were in church. It was in his encounter with Fredrick Douglass that the pair conceived war as a means to abolishing slavery. The meeting was held in a church. For that reason, the image depicts the irony of proposing war (the rifle) inside a church (the bible) as a beginning and an end to slavery – the Greek letters Alpha and Omega signify beginning and end. Brown is also depicted facing the side of the rifle with a countenance of aggressive resolve. The latter explains his stance on the means to do away with slavery (Corbett 411).
Curry positioned Brown in the South. The covered wagons have people leading before them as if they are running away from the prairie fire. The Southerners were predominantly farmers as signified by the oxen and the carts. It is in the region that slavery was practiced and encouraged. They are moving away from a burning part of the country with a tornado in the background. The tornado signifies the anticipated destruction expected from the armed insurrection. More specifically, the location would be Kansas because it is where the war started (Corbett 402). The artist has depicted Brown in that location with a tornado in order to signify the impact that war was to have on Kansas. Fire signifies the anticipated destruction the war would have.
Three additional unique elements in the picture include two dead men at Brown’s feet to signify deaths in the war, a massive beard on Brown signifying disorder, along with African American families in his bottom left signifying the slaves. The two dead men have different fatigues: blue and brown. Curry uses these to illustrate that the death of more than half a million civilians and soldiers from both the abolitionist and the pro-slavery movements. Perhaps a prominent theme in the death is that the consequences of war do not spare those who are ‘right’ as well as influence those who are ‘wrong.’ War in its entirety is archaic in addition to being counterproductive.
All sides are losers in some way. However, Curry’s depiction of a densely bearded John Brown exemplifies a disorder; an abnormality that most people thought had gripped him with his obsession with insurrection. Lastly, the African American families in the picture appear cowed, with white men towering above them condescendingly. This is used to illustrate how Southerners had subdued the black slaves, along with the black peoples’ lowly status. More succinctly, there is a startled backward-staring black man facing what seems like a white master, further illustrating the black peoples’ plight in the South.