Thomas Satterwhite Noble was born in Lexington, Kentucky, at a time when the city was the center of the state's slave trade. Noble grew up on a plantation, where his father was a hemp and cotton farmer who also operated a rope and bagging factory in St. Louis. His father used slaves as hired hands through contract-for-hire arrangement with slave traders in Lexington. As a child, Noble befriended the slave children that lived in small cabins at the back of the family home. The artist was sympathetic to the plight of the slaves from a very young age.
Noble attended Transylvania University in Lexington and studied art with Oliver Frazer and George P.A. Healy. In 1853, at the age of eighteen, Noble moved to New York City and by 1856 he was studying art in Paris with the historical painter Thomas Couture. Upon his return to America in 1859, the artist served as a captain in the Confederate Army, despite his opposition to slavery. After the Civil War, Noble returned to St. Louis in 1865 and explored the lives of freed slaves in America in a series of historical and allegorical paintings.
"Clearly the war and its aftermath influenced the production of these works, perhaps not without an underlying sense of guilt for his participation in the conflict and in his remembrance of his childhood experiences on the rope plantation of his father who made extensive use of slaves. At the same time, a major market in the north now opened for pictures with slave subjects. Eastman Johnson, also a student of Couture, had exhibited his ambiguous but highly popular Life in the Old South...at the National Academy in 1859...Noble's early works sold quickly to patrons in New York and Chicago, suggesting that he too tapped into this market. Northern businessmen and merchants may have sought such images to display their liberal sympathies and support of Reconstruction which benefited them economically." (J.D. Birchfield, et al., Thomas Slatterwhite Noble 1835-1907, University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington, Kentucky, 1988, p. 35)
The present work is most likely an early work in a series of paintings entitled Past, Present & Future Conditions of the Negro. "The Present Condition of the Negro painted immediately after the war brought the artist a great deal of notoriety. It depicted an elderly black woman who, having just returned from the market, sits before the fireplace and enjoys her pipe while calculating her expenditures. On the wall over the fireplace hung a picture of Abraham Lincoln." (Thomas Slatterwhite Noble, p. 35)