Image Image Image Image Image

The Amistad Center for Art & Culture at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Scroll to Top

To Top




In Blog

By Admin

About Face

On 24, May 2014 | In Blog | By Admin

In his cultural history of the aesthetics of smiles, Angus Trumble charts the range of smile impulses.  He suggests, “The act of smiling itself is inevitably social and communicative, part of the complex nonverbal language with which ourbodies are equipped.  A decorous smile, a smile of restraint, is therefore an important ingredient of good manners….It can be a kind of mask.”  For Trans Atlantic Blacks, portraiture or any representation has been complicated because of the journey writer Monica Miller describes as moving from “slave to self.”

Images of Blacks in the Americas provide a reasonably accurate reflection of public opinion as Blacks made the transition from Slave to Self. From appearing as objects in formal portraits to being the subject of their own, African Americans have labored to subdue, tame, and control the circumstances around the image.  Portrait artists popularized the custom of including enslaved black children as luxury ornaments in the pictures of 18th and 19thcentury gentry.  Enslaved blacks continued to be reluctant subjects for some early photographers as they perfected the daguerreotype process in the mid 1800s.  Author, activist, and public figure Frederick Douglass capitalized on photography’s potential to elevate and used it in his efforts to move beyond his origins on a Maryland plantation.

Supported by E.G. Warren, S.M. Fassett and other sympathetic photographers who armed him with strategically posed images, Douglass campaigned for change as a cultural and political leader.  Undoubtedly Douglass’ signature look — head tilted, hair cascading, with slight tension around the mouth and brow— covered some part of his psyche he needed to hold close, but this look wasn’t a mask to obscure but rather armor to protect as he forged into battle.  These formal portraits were part of his arsenal; a necessary element for the serious work to be done. Douglass’ photographs and the images produced by a group of itinerant Black photographers were a persuasive argument for the transcendent humanity to be realized when a subject is rendered well.  Aspiring celebrities who were not activists would adopt Douglass’ model throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries as they understood the work a good formal portrait could do.  Sculptor Edmonia Lewis visited Henry Rocher’s Chicago studio in 1870 for portraits she used in a campaign to promote herself and the exhibition of her sculpture of Hagar during a U.S. tour.  The Black Patti, Corinne, and other theater celebrities used the formal costumed portraits on cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite to promote their performances.  Some theater celebrities moved out of costume for candid but still formal studio portraits that conveyed professional purpose.

The alternative to the formal portrait with the professional agenda is the intimate portrait with the personal assignment. These portraits of idealized children and reserved adult subjects are both engaged and remote. The subjects are rendered with empathy and tenderness, but the models project a sense of the reserve required for self-preservation.  In Hartford-based painter Helen Townsend Stimpson’s portrait of the hatted woman, the hat and the woman wearing it struggle for control of the scene.  The hat is the perfect cover for any reluctance by the subject.  Another Hartford artist, Laura Wheeler Waring, integrated the formal portrait and the insider sensitivity sought in the intimate portrait.  She infused her oil portraits of formerly enslaved women, beatific children, and early 20th-century civil rights luminaries with equal dignity.  Her images in the 1944 Harmon Foundation series Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin reflect her trademark sober realism balanced by expressionist impulses.

Behind NAACP administrator and poet James Weldon Johnson, Waring references imagery from Johnson’s popular poem “Creation” in the volume God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Waring’s portrait of her close friend Jessie Fauset—once described by Langston Hughes as the midwife of “New Negro Literature”— allows the subject a respectable distance but implies warmth and affection with the various greens that dominate the canvas and a characteristic floral still life that Waring often gave to friends represented in the background.  Waring’s portraits in the series were loving tributes to friends and contemporaries but like Frederick Douglass’s photographs they had important civil rights work to do.  The Harmon Foundation portraits toured the nation for 10 years to promote the achievements of African Americans across the country.  The campaign was so strategically imagined that a white woman artist—Betsy Graves Reyneau— was also commissioned for some of the portraits.  Even the artist selection had an integrationist agenda.  The tour ended just as bus boycotts and school desegregation cases began to command the nation’s attention.  Images of the activism that powered the Modern Civil Rights Movement redefined the standards of intimacy, revelation, public work, and reserve in what could be called portraits of African Americans.