Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2021
Aston Gonzalez Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 324 pp.; 36 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781469659961)

In nineteenth-century America, images were powerful tools in the battle to confront slavery and racial oppression. Aston Gonzalez’s Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century explores how Black artists fashioned radical new imagery that engaged Americans in discussions concerning the politics of race and citizenship.

Visualizing Equality focuses on Robert Douglass Jr., Patrick Henry Reason, Augustus Washington, and James Presley Ball, artist-activists who played a leading role in their respective communities, alongside William Wells Brown and Henry Box Brown, who brought real-life experiences of enslavement to their projects. Born free, Douglass, Reason, Washington, and Ball drew upon family attachments, ancestral memories, and social connections, in addition to formal training, as inspiration for their mission. These artists employed advances in visual technologies, such as the proliferation of the lithograph and the illustrated newspaper in print media, daguerreotypes and cartes de visite in photography, and the revival of the moving panorama, to improvise new visual strategies that challenged racist stereotypes and caricatures. While each artist was deeply engaged in local activities, each also traveled throughout the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe, establishing networks across the broader Atlantic world that involved a diverse African diaspora in their vision of freedom. 

The book begins in the 1830s with the visual activism of Robert Douglass and Patrick Henry Reason. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 consider how Douglass in Philadelphia and Reason in New York came of age in places where training in the arts was accessible to both, and linked to their history of involvement with abolitionist groups. Their civic activities informed the creation of alternative representations of fugitive slaves and peoples of African descent as subservient. Chapter 4 examines the moving panoramas created by William Wells Brown, Henry Fox Brown, and James Presley Ball during the 1840s and 1850s. The daguerreotypist Augustus Washington is the subject of chapter 5, which discusses the complications of the artist’s role as a photographer whose images were used to support the American Colonization Society’s efforts in Liberia. Chapters 6 and 7 continue to focus on the power of photographic images during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Visualizing Equality highlights the importance of historians’ incorporating methods of analysis from the disciplines of art history and visual culture studies. Images are complicated primary visual documents that require deep historical contextualization to extract information. Increasingly, historians of the nineteenth century investigate images, especially photographs, and in the process discover how they relate to and complicate research with traditional resources like written documents. Gonzalez’s study of Ball’s antebellum panorama and photographs of Black subjects, as well as the discussion of Douglass’s career as an art critic during the 1870s, stand out as exemplary models of research when scholars are challenged by the paucity of extant primary resources related to marginalized groups.

For example, Ball’s Mammoth Panorama of American Scenery (1855) captivated audiences as the artwork toured Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Boston. Gonzalez found that the strength of Ball’s vision of America was its powerful didactic narrative. Although the artwork is no longer extant, the pamphlet Ball created shows how he sought to educate Americans about the impact of slavery with graphic imagery illustrating its power to corrupt and degrade. Beginning with scenes of the African landscape, he exceeded the historical breadth of the panoramas created by William Wells Brown and Henry Fox Brown. Ball portrayed Africans as civilized agriculturalists experienced in the science of government and developers of ancient trade networks. He presented his history of progress as disrupted by the European transatlantic slave trade. Identifying slave owners by name, he exposed the sexual violence perpetrated on enslaved women, used statistics to document the high death rates of people living under a brutal system of oppression, and documented how slave economies undergirded the growing prosperity of the nation.

Most of Ball’s extant visual archive comprises white customers. Gonzalez’s analysis of some of the limited number of photographs Ball took of Black subjects between 1862 and 1877 demonstrate how critical it is for scholars to uncover such rare visual resources, in this case photographs of Black subjects taken by Black photographers. One example, Jesse L. Bench, Quartermaster Sergeant, 22 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis., was previously published in Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Temple University Press, 2012) by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer. Gonzalez’s interpretation expands upon the intersections between visual and textual documents. We are confronted with a dramatic visual presentation depicting two white men standing on either side of a young woman with pistols, one of them pointed at her head. Racial identity is unclear and there is no reason to identify the young woman as Black, enslaved, or free. The written testimony of the Quaker activist Levi Coffin reveals that the young woman’s master intended to sell her to a house of prostitution. She initially escaped the slave owner, who was in fast pursuit from Kentucky, by disguising as a Union soldier. Ball recorded her portrait as she was dressed to “pass” into freedom, wearing the middle-class trappings of white womanhood.

This photograph raises more questions than it can answer. How did this information factor into Ball’s construction of his photograph and the way the subjects act out their parts in this narrative? How does the artist resolve the visual dilemma of including the two soldiers involved in the unnamed fugitive’s escape with their weapons so conspicuously displayed? Gonzalez argues that the image reveals the intersections of race and gender performance when escaping slavery. Despite the extant textual and visual information, however, the artist created a complex image that continues to confound. Ball’s photograph remains a disturbing, unsettling picture of vulnerable Black womanhood during the Civil War.

Gonzalez examines Robert Douglass as an artist whose experience as an abolitionist shaped his ideas about the relationship between art and activism in his community. His creative work during Reconstruction emerged from the reading practices cultivated by African American churches promoting literary activities that encouraged the intellectual life and development of civic character. In 1868 Douglass began to contribute art, write reviews, and translate foreign periodicals for the Christian Recorder. Benjamin Tucker Tanner, father of renowned artist Henry Ossawa Tanner and a clergyman with the AME Church, founded the newspaper in 1868 and served as its editor for sixteen years. Douglass viewed his position as a continuation of his work as a portrait painter and maker of signs and banners linked to antislavery activism before the war. While most of the images published in the Christian Recorder no longer exist, information is gleaned from the titles and discussion of the pictures in Tanner’s editorials. In the 1870s the newspaper included Douglass’s image of John Brown slaying the monster of slavery, created to support the Fifteenth Amendment securing Black men’s voting rights. Tanner advised readers not only to secure a copy but to exhibit it in public in parades, marches, and demonstrations beyond the privacy of the home parlor. In Dying for the Flag, Douglass created an image that informed readers about Black American veterans of the Civil War, while Cuba Must Be Free deals with the emancipation followed by the servitude that was inflicted upon the people in 1868.

Gonzalez highlights one of Douglass’s most important achievements, working as a news correspondent/art critic for the Christian Recorder, when the Centennial Exhibition was held in Philadelphia in 1876. Tanner, as one of the organizers, and Douglass both saw the centennial as a platform to showcase Black achievements, especially in the arts. In his review of Under the Oaks (current location unknown), the painting by African American artist Edward Mitchell Bannister, Douglass judged it as not only worthy of the first-prize medal it was awarded, but comparable to the work of the British landscape painter John Constable, whose paintings he had studied as an art student in London in 1840. In another review of art at the Centennial Exhibition, Douglass strongly favored a sculpture titled The Slave by the Italian artist Milar Buoninsegna, judging its expressive qualities as far superior to that of Hiram Power’s famous but bland depiction of a Greek slave.

Visualizing Equality successfully demonstrates how early African American visual artists developed ideas and practices of image making linked to politics impacted by their understanding of the intersections of race and images. Meticulously researched, Gonzalez’s text focuses our attention on Black artists empowered by their positions as activists in free Black communities in the North. While the book covers numerous themes, the emphasis on Black artists as producers of ideas and creators of images that proclaim Black peoples’ humanity and equal rights provides cohesion and makes the text manageable. Visualizing Equality is a thoroughly researched monograph that will inspire investigation into even more unexplored archives, databases, newspapers, and periodicals produced during the long nineteenth century of American history.

Earnestine Jenkins
Professor, Department of Art, University of Memphis