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Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century

April 22 - July 16, 2006



(above: Ethan Allen Greenwood (1779­1856), Portrait of Charles Jones, 1815, oil on panel. © Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Gift of William Vareika)


The Delaware Art Museum presents Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, a critical examination of images made of and by African Americans and their role in establishing and fostering racial identity during a period of radical social change. On display April 22 through July 16, 2006, the exhibition features almost 70 works in various media, ranging from paintings, photographs, and silhouettes to book frontispieces and popular prints.


(above: Scipio Moorhead (lived in Boston, Massachusetts, 1750), Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, 1773. Frontispiece engraving. © Special Collections, Margaret Clapp Library, Wellesley College)


Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century explores a variety of portraits made from the late 1700s through the 1890s. "From the frontispiece portrait of eighteenth-century African-born poet Phillis Wheatley to the visiting card photographs of the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, this exhibition allows us to view these historical individuals both as they were seen by others and as they wanted to be seen," said exhibition curator, Dr. Joyce Schiller. "While this exhibit delves into specific portraits, the entire range of images provides a powerful view into African American history. It is the individuals of the time whose lives speak of what was important then."


(above: William Matthew Prior (1806­1873), Mrs. Nancy Lawson, 1843, oil on canvas. © Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont)


Many of the portraits in this exhibit tell of the African American community's search for identity and the often crossed borders between black and white worlds, as sitters strove to express common middle-class ideals and social aspirations. The popular print extolling the bravery of Joseph Cinque put a recognizable face to slavery before the Civil War. Photographs of abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass demonstrate the ways inexpensive, mechanically produced portraits were utilized in the service of moral and political goals. And images of leaders of the African American church and politics show sophisticated uses of the visual vocabulary of power and prestige.


(above: W. E. Bowman (1834­1915), Frederick Douglass, n.d., Albumen print on card. © American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts)


"Whatever the sources and intended uses of the images, the personalities pictured in this exhibition expose the humanity and individuality of the people represented," said exhibition curator, Dr. Joyce Schiller.

An extensive illustrated catalog, authored by the exhibit's curator Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, will be available.


(above: Thomas Eakins (1844­1916), Portrait of Henry O. Tanner, 1902, pil on canvas. © The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York)


An advisory panel composed of 14 statewide and regional community leaders and chaired by Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, helped the Delaware Art Museum design community outreach programs related to Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century.

Previously on display at the Addison Gallery in Andover, MA, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century will be on view at the Delaware Art Museum until July 16, and then travel to the Long Beach Museum of Art through November 2006.

This exhibition is presented at the Delaware Art Museum by DuPont. In addition, generous support is provided by AstraZeneca, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Wilmington Trust, Clear Channel Radio ­ WILM, WJBR-FM, PNC Foundation, The Gilliam Foundation, the Hallie Tybout Exhibition Fund, The Christmas Shop Foundation, and the Delaware Division of the Arts.


(above: Thomas Sully (1783­1872), Edward James Roye, c. 1864. oil on canvas. © Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Philadelphia Collection. Gift of the Pennsylvania Colonization Society)


This exhibition was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; and generously supported in part by Foley Hoag, LLP, Vivian and James Beard, Senator Edward W. and Mrs. Anne F. Brooke, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, John P. Axelrod, The Middlesex County Chapter of Links, Inc., Mark F. and Susan C. Clark, Dan and Alice Cunningham, Mark and Denise Johnson, David and Lisa Grain and other contributors in honor of Charles J. Beard II (PA '62).


Exhibition wall text


Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century
At its heart Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century is about exploring the ways that freeborn and freed African Americans used portraiture to establish public and private identities. The works exhibited in the adjacent galleries reveal the ways that people who had been systematically denied self-determination used art to further personal and group ambitions.
Beginning in 1619 when Africans first arrived in America as indentured or enslaved workers they struggled with issues of identity and selfhood that set them apart from the Europeans who had brought them to the New World. Although historically present in the legal record, as individuals they remained absent from the visual record for the first century of colonization. By the beginning of the 18th century unnamed, enslaved African Americans began to appear as attendants in portraits of slave owners, but it is not until the 1770s that portraits of individual, identified African Americans appeared.
The images presented here date from the beginning of the American Revolution through the close of the next century with the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 sanctioning segregation of the races. The images are remarkable and often unexpectedly candid about the aesthetic desires and social goals of both their makers and their sitters. From the anonymously engraved frontispiece portrait of the African-born poet Phillis Wheatley to Thomas Eakins's portrait of his student and fellow painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, we see the ways that creative African Americans were imagined. The many moderately priced portraits of middle class African Americans by the painter William Matthew Prior reveal the frequency with which the borders between the black and white worlds were crossed by sitters seeking to demonstrate common ideals and social aspirations. Photographs of abolitionists, including Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, provide examples of the ways that inexpensive, mechanically reproducible portraits could be mobilized in the service of moral and political goals, just as images of leaders in the African American church and politics reveal sophisticated usages of the visual rhetoric of power and prestige.
Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century is about more than the name and the biography of the individual sitter. By casting new light on their portraits we can better understand how a world of constantly evolving media and new strategies of representation came to the aid of people who had so often been denied individuality. Ultimately, these remarkable portraits reveal the creation of a visual space in which such people could compel an audience to recognize them as dynamic and ambitious during a century of profound change.
Establishing Identity
With the start of the American Revolution, African Americans experienced a newfound visibility as they were called to serve the cause of independence. African American men who fought bravely in the Continental Army, including James Armistead, were rewarded for their service and some were celebrated in easily reproduced prints that featured both their portraits and a description of their accomplishments.
During the early republican period some white artists sought to better understand and establish the composition of the new nation by painting images of racial and cultural difference, exemplified by the portrait of the aged Yarrow Mamout, an African-born Muslim living in Georgetown. In a similar vein, the portrait of George Washington's cook Hercules reveals a desire to represent the valuable professional skills that had been acquired by enslaved sitters, as well as to demonstrate the tenuous relationships that they maintained with the people to whom they were legally bound.
The ambivalence found in relationships between the owners and the owned may be seen in the silhouette portrait profile of the mixed-race Moses Williams, which has been attributed to the son of his former owner, and that of the man known to us only as "Mr. Shaw's Blackman," which was cut by Williams himself. These images, in contrast to more fully realized portraits, remind us of the challenges that a minimalist medium like silhouette presents in the reading and revelation of racial identity.


Related Programs


Thursday, April 27, 12:00 ­ 1:00 p.m.

Starving for Art. Join a Museum guide for a 30 minute tour featuring Portraits of a People followed by an informal discussion over lunch. Free with Museum admission.


Friday, April 28, 10:30 ­ 11:30 a.m.

Glory of Stories. Museum staff and docents will present the story "Baker's Portrait" by Michelle Edwards to pre-school and younger home-school students. In this reading, a painter who renders precise portraits struggles until she realizes there are other ways she can represent who a person is. Children will look at the various portraits throughout the Delaware Art Museum, and make their own torn paper portrait.


Friday, May 10, 6:00 p.m.

Visiting Lecture Series. Featuring Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Guest Curator speaking on, "Phillis Wheatley and the Origins of Frontispiece Portraiture in America." Free with Museum admission.


Saturday, May 13, 10:00 a.m.

Genealogy Workshop. Getting Started on Your Family Tree - Beginning Genealogy


Saturday, May 20, 10:00 a.m.

Genealogy Workshop. New Ways to find Old Ancestors - Using the Internet for Genealogy.


rev. 5/1/06

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