Painted nearly thirty years after the Battle of Gettysburg and in the midst of the populist labor movement, Richard La Barre Goodwin's The Cobbler presents an idealized picture of post-Civil War American society. Goodwin, the son of renowned society portrait painter Edwin Weyburn Goodwin, was born in Albany, New York, in 1840. He served as a soldier in the Union Army and, after being wounded in the Battle of Bull Run, he spent the greater part of his life traveling the breadth of the newly restored nation as an itinerant artist. Although he began as a portrait painter, Goodwin gained renown for his trompe l'oeil, "cabin door" still lifes. Popular and well received in his day, his works found their way into the collections of such notables as Governor Roswell P. Flower, William Randolph Hearst, and Leland Stanford of California.
The present work, one of Goodwin's rare genre paintings, depicts an African American cobbler in his workshop surrounded by the tools of his trade. The rich narrative woven in this scene is one of continued devotion to the American ideals tested on the battlefields of the Civil War. The cobbler takes central focus in the composition, with light streaming in from the left illuminating his face with an aura of the divine. He is portrayed with the self-possessed dignity of a man truly free, a serene smile playing across his lips as he momentarily rests his hammer to read the Bible. An Alexander Gardner photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken days before the Gettysburg Address, is the sole non-utilitarian adornment of his humble shop. This photo, coupled with the Bible open to the breaking of the seals in "Revelations: Chapter Five," enriches the painting with deep symbolic resonance, granting a religious significance to the sacrifices of the Civil War and recalling the lines in the Gettysburg address: "That these dead shall not have died in vain." The upper right of the composition is dominated by a recessed shelf holding a straw farmer's hat that rests beside a newspaper, The National View. This Greenback party newspaper is dated January 21, 1893, indicating the nation's continued struggle for justice through the Populist movement of the 1890s. Its inclusion reflects Goodwin's own love and hope for his land, honoring the memory of the war and looking ahead with hope to the upcoming century.