The Rebecca is both a political and historical painting, and one of Indiana’s first works addressing the darker side of the American Dream. Belonging to a sequence of paintings that concentrate on racial injustice, it powerfully references the slave ships that once sailed into New York Harbor. It also illustrates Indiana’s strong sense of how the chronology of his own life crossed the larger forces of history. At the time he created The Rebecca he lived in Coenties Slip, and the area’s history and maritime landscape provided him with various resources for his work.
Indiana painted The Rebecca using many compositional elements distinctive to his style. The work’s title, the name of a slave ship, is written in his signature stenciled letters along the lower edge of the painting. The idea of incorporating stenciled letters originated from the discovery of 19th-century brass stencils, once used for labeling crates and packaging, in the artist Lenore Tawney’s Coenties Slip studio. Two concentric circles bear the inscriptions that convey the work’s meaning. The outer circle contains the key words “The American Slave Company,” and the words “Port of New York” are set into an eight branched star in the middle of the painting. The circle, a promise of movement, therefore becomes a jagged wheel with an appearance similar to a compass rose. Numbers in Indiana’s work frequently convey multiple meanings; here the broken numeral eight, which alludes to the month of August, the month in which the ship ended its run, can also be read as a reference to Indiana’s mother, who was born and died that month.