Painted just two years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, in the midst of rising national tensions over slavery, Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South appears, at first glance, to be inward-looking and detached from the politics of the impending crisis. Matters of space and especially movement were central to the construction of racial categories during this period. Johnson began seeking subjects to launch his career as a figure painter in the United States soon after moving in the fall of 1855 from Europe to the nation’s capital, and he focused many of his early canvases on two population groups whose liberties were greatly restricted. Negro Life at the South brings the spatial politics of slavery in the United States into dialogue with the pictorial conventions of earlier American and European genre traditions. Looking to Johnson’s imagery helps people to understand the complex politics of mobility and containment during the third quarter of the nineteenth century.