Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 6, 2007
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century Exh. cat. Andover, MA: Addison Gallery of American Art in association with University of Washington Press, 2006. 184 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. Paper (0295985712)
Exhibition schedule: Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, January 14–March 26, 2006; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, April 21–July 17, 2006; Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA, August 25–November 26, 2006
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Published in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century is an important contribution to the growing literature on race and visual representation in American culture. The beautifully illustrated catalogue includes three essays by guest curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw (Associate Professor of History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania), two of which expand upon the ideas in her first book, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). It also contains an introduction by Karen C. C. Dalton (Director of the Image of the Black in Western Art Research Project and Archive at Harvard University) and thirty-nine object entries written by Shaw and Emily K. Shubert (Charles H. Sawyer Curatorial Fellow at the Addison). Together these authors take a close look at portraits of and by free African Americans, examining them within their personal, socio-historical, and aesthetic contexts. Through in-depth research and wide-reaching analyses, they show us how images of black sitters functioned as visual evidence of raced, classed, and gendered identities, as well as visual expressions of individual subjectivity and agency, in a period of profound social change.

As Dalton informs readers in her introduction, Portraits of a People enters into dialogue with other highly influential surveys of black representation, most notably The Image of the Black in Western Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), a multi-volume series whose publication she now oversees, and Guy McElroy’s Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710–1940 (Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1990). According to Shaw, McElroy’s exhibition catalogue in particular became “a germinal force” in her conception of a critical survey of African American portraiture and subsequently shaped her “thinking on race and portraiture” (11). Not only do Facing History and Portraits of a People share a similar format, but the two catalogues also share many of the same works by European-American painters Justus Kühn, Thomas Sully, William Prior, and Theodor Kaufmann. It is in the many differences between Portraits of a People and previous surveys, however, that one discovers its most significant contributions to the study of African American representation and, more broadly, to American art history. Shaw revises the scope and goals of these projects, while incorporating new research, new methodologies, and a thoroughgoing criticality.

Unlike McElroy, whose primary aim was to document comprehensively the variety of artistic representations of blacks from the colonial period to the mid-twentieth century, Shaw focuses on a single genre (portraiture) and a shorter period (the long nineteenth century). She also places a greater emphasis on representations by African Americans. Her survey thus begins with a 1773 engraving of the African-born poet Phillis Wheatley, which has been attributed to the enslaved artist Scipio Moorhead, and concludes with Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1897) by famed African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. Within her essays and entries, moreover, Shaw includes images that have long been excluded from the (white) art-historical canon and thus from previous surveys—from book frontispieces like Wheatley’s portrait to silhouettes, daguerreotypes, and carte de visite photographs.

The catalogue’s reproduction of as many as thirty photographs speaks to the importance it places on commercial photography within the history of black culture; the considerable attention that Shaw and Shubert devote to these objects in their entries also acknowledges the recent explosion of academic writing on African American photography. Excluded from Facing History, photographs not only fill but literally frame Portraits of a People, as cartes de visite of black abolitionist Sojourner Truth and mixed-race slave children are prominently reproduced on the book’s inside flaps.

Including photography in its survey is one way in which Portraits of a People, unlike many other art-museum publications, incorporates the methods of visual culture studies. Indeed, one of the strengths of Shaw’s work is her ability to construct productive dialogues between a variety of visual practices and media. Readers will find, for example, that her entry for The Freedom Ring (1860) by the genre-scene painter Eastman Johnson introduces an in-depth discussion of the photographed slave children, while her essay on Wheatley examines the commercially printed frontispiece alongside the fine-artistic paintings of John Singleton Copley and Angelica Kaufmann. In these and other instances, vernacular and so-called “low” forms of visual culture do not function as illustrations that resist analysis or as background for the canonical fine artworks, but themselves become the principal subjects of critical interpretation. Returning to what she calls “the actual work of art,” Shaw constructs her interpretations by reading image compositions, sources, and material production alongside period literature, the personal records of artists and sitters, and the broad social context in which their portraits were made. Comfortable with speculation, she often uses these objects and texts to support provocative and fascinating arguments, many of which importantly challenge the canon and historiography of African American art.

Although presented with a variety of evidence, even the most open-minded of readers will find themselves skeptical of some of Shaw’s conclusions, however. Take, for example, her extensive analysis of Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles (after 1802), in which she bases a reattribution of the image on her observation of subtle changes to the silhouette’s original machine-produced form lines. These changes, she argues, resulted in a lengthening and racial whitening of the sitter’s hair, suggesting that the profile portrait was made not by the preeminent European-American painter Raphaelle Peale but by Moses Williams himself, a mulatto slave raised in the Peale household who cut silhouettes at Charles Wilson Peale’s ethnographic museum. While generally persuaded by Shaw’s highly speculative analysis of the silhouette, this reader was unconvinced by other claims, as in the following which appears in her entry for Raphaelle Peale’s Absalom Jones (1810): “That Peale, a white artist, chose (or was commissioned) to paint the African American minister, indicates that he was at ease with members of the often marginalized African American community in Philadelphia” (92). The fact that a male artist painted a portrait of a woman does not guarantee he isn’t a misogynist; so too should one resist reading Peale’s painting as proof of his “ease” with African Americans.

Although Portraits of a People in many respects expands the image base contained in previous surveys of the black image, it leaves out a large and important category of African American representation—namely, the derogatory stereotypes of blacks that pervaded every form of visual culture in nineteenth-century America. According to Dalton, such pictures simply fall outside their generic limits, since only images that explore “the humanity of the sitter” and “esche[w] preconceptions of stereotype” can be considered portraits (11). Objections to Dalton’s definition of portraiture aside, this decision would seem to open up Portrait of a People to the heavy criticism that Michelle Wallace levied against McElroy for removing popular racist images from his exhibition. “I would hope that the principal purpose for studying images of blacks in visual art,” Wallace explained in 1990, “is to gain insight into cultural racism” (“Defacing History,” Art in America [December 1990]: 122). For Wallace and many other African American critics, such insight can be gained by studying how blacks have been degraded through caricature and rendered virtually invisible as subjects and producers of art throughout history

The contributors to Portraits of a People show us, however, that one can investigate racism while “empower[ing] the ‘other’ within the space of the museum,” as Wallace had put it (185), without taking racist caricatures as one’s primary objects of analysis. These authors claim that, since all nineteenth-century images of blacks (and, I would add, whites) are steeped in the complex racial politics of their day, racism can be explored through portraits of African American artists, writers, barbers, priests, soldiers, and social activists. Counterpoints to the dehumanized objects of slavery, these black subjects attempted to construct their identities, and indeed their free “selves,” in and through representation. Returning to her essay on Williams, we thus find Shaw using a seemingly conventional silhouette to explore its re-presentation of race, class, and gender and to investigate the restrictions placed on African American artists in the early nineteenth century. In this example, she argues, Williams used the silhouette format to “purposely creat[e] an image in which his own features would connote tropes of whiteness rather than blackness,” expressing “the anxiety and confusion he had about his position as a person of mixed race within a white society that despised his heritage” (52). While highlighting the racism that fueled such “anxiety and confusion,” Shaw presents Williams’s portrait, like the rest of the objects in the catalogue, as a positive image of its African American subject.

Portraits of a People expresses this commitment to exploring black subjectivity and self-creation in part through the organization and content of its object entries. Rather than arranging images by their maker, as most surveys of the black image do, Portraits of a People divides its entries among five thematic categories: “establishing identity,” “rise of the black church,” abolition/liberation,” family and children,” and “prominence and individuality.” Although too general to contribute significantly to the image analyses, these categories allow the authors to foreground the life world of sitters instead of prioritizing their predominantly white artists. Shaw and Shubert almost always begin their entries with discussions of sitters, moreover, even in cases of portraits made by European-American “masters” such as Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Eakins.

With this emphasis on the black subject comes a preoccupation with individual agency that runs throughout the catalogue. In her essays on Wheatley and Williams, for instance, Shaw is concerned to make visible the ability of these figures to act, choose, and effect change. The engraving of the poet at her writing desk shows us “an empowered wielder of agency” (29), she argues, while Williams’s silhouette, with its lengthened hair, similarly portrays an artist with “a certain amount of agency and control” over his practice (53). In recent years, the identification of agency in and through black representation has become a common trope, particularly within the historiography of photography where it defines the prolific work of Smithsonian curator Deborah Willis. Like Portraits of a People, Willis’s exhibition catalogues—from Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000) to Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits (Washington, DC: National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2007)—challenge a dominant history of American art that foregrounds the disempowerment of blacks.

One imagines that, by interpreting portraits of African Americans as evidence of positive action, Willis and Shaw hope to inspire audiences and readers of all races. The specific examples that she uses in Portraits of a People, however, suggest that such action deserves further interrogation and qualification. While Shaw rightfully acknowledges that the agency of African Americans was limited and variable across the nineteenth century, she does not fully explore the implications of their appropriating “white” forms of representation. After all, it is deeply ironic that, in an effort to assert themselves as free and valued subjects, Williams and other mixed-race subjects discussed in the catalogue created white-looking portraits in a genre and media associated with European Americans. Did these appropriations, made in the name of self-creation, potentially diminish the social power that African American artists and sitters may have gained in and through portraiture, or were they so profoundly destabilizing to dominant culture that they functioned as evidence of unfettered agency? There are also the questions of if and how one can formally read agency in portraiture. Is there an iconography of intention and self-possession, as the catalogue entries suggest? Should we always read a direct and brooding gaze as a stable sign of such power, given that it appears in nineteenth-century criminal mug shots as well as in daguerreotypes of Frederick Douglass? And do the curled-up, dimpled hands of African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis that appear in her carte de visite necessarily belong to an “understated” woman whose body “resist[ed] the moment of exposure,” both in the photographic studio and the international art world (172)? While readings like these may reinforce aspects of the sitters’ biographies, they also run the risk of oversimplifying the relationship between the (always mediated) image and the (always performing) body.

Through its exploration of black subjectivity, Portraits of a People presents itself as a highly compelling project with a life well beyond its documentation of an ephemeral exhibition. The catalogue is certain to find an important place in college surveys of African American and American art, and will likely inspire even more art historians to turn to the museum as a stage for their arguments. One hopes that it will also encourage further critical study of individual agency and its complex relationship to African American representation.

Tanya Sheehan
Field Editor for Photography and Editorial Board member, caa.reviews; Associate Professor, Department of Art, Colby College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.