Images of Slavery as Visual Evidence 1

This topic presents some intense pedagogical challenges. The subject matter is difficult and painful, if treated honestly. The imagery, when not downright misleading, rarely if ever offers straightforward evidence about the institution of slavery or its lived realities.

J. T. Zealy, "Portrait of Renty, African-born slave," quarter-plate daguerreotype, March 1850. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Photo T1867.

J. T. Zealy, “Portrait of Renty, African-born slave,” quarter-plate daguerreotype, March 1850. Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Photo T1867.

Consider the often illustrated example of the Zealy daguerreotypes, photographs of partially nude South Carolina plantation slaves that were commissioned in 1850 by the eminent Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz (and that ended up in the anthropology museum there). Ironically Agassiz wanted these photographs to be read as evidence-specifically as scientific evidence for polygenesis, the idea that human races had separate origins and were thus inescapably and irrevocably different. The chosen slaves, according to the captions found with the images, were either born in Africa or born of African parents. Somehow these images were supposed to convince presumably white viewers that the black African body was so alien that the African “race” must be, in effect, a separate species. As teachers we need to make clear that we reject the claims of these images to be scientific evidence, but are they evidence of anything else? What can our students learn from looking at them?

One of the dangers is to use these images as windows into their subjects’ plight, or their character, or their emotional life. It is hard not to speculate about how they feel: are they defiant or upset, comfortable or abused, emotionally bared or hidden? How would I feel in their position? The problem is not the questions per se but the fact that the photographs themselves cannot answer them. The images give us no reliable access to the slaves’ lived situation. Why? Because in between the viewer and the photographed slave stands a row of technicians and power brokers who all had a hand in shaping these images: the photographer in his studio, the plantation owner who delivered the human subjects, and the scientist who conceived the project. The photographs are more about this complex web of relations than about the slaves themselves.

It is easy to grasp the most obvious fact about these relations-the powerlessness of the slaves-but we hardly need photographs to reveal that aspect of slavery. More to the point, the images give students an opportunity to think about how important it was to control slave bodies, not just in a physical sense but in a social and cultural sense.

"Portrait of an unidentified African-American woman," c. 1850, daguerreotype with applied color. George Eastman House.

“Portrait of an unidentified African-American woman,” c. 1850, daguerreotype with applied color. George Eastman House.

Thomas Martin Easterly, "Father, Daughters, and Nurse," c. 1850, hand-colored daguerreotype. Getty Museum.

Thomas Martin Easterly, “Father, Daughters, and Nurse,” c. 1850, hand-colored daguerreotype. Getty Museum.

By comparing these daguerreotypes to photographic portraits of free people, we can ask students to study how the Zealy images worked to strip their subjects of social identity and turn them into scientific specimens. Then by comparing the Zealy images to the rare photographs of slaves who did appear in domestic roles, students can start to identify the conditions under which slaves were permitted to have a social identity and why they were. Through this kind of exercise photography comes to be understood not as a mirror of reality but as a cultural practice-a technology of representation employed unequally within the slave system to shape or destroy identities.

Junius Brutus Stearns, "Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon," 1851, oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Junius Brutus Stearns, “Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon,” 1851, oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Eastman Johnson, "Negro Life at the South," 1851, oil on canvas, New-York Historical Society.

Eastman Johnson, “Negro Life at the South,” 1851, oil on canvas, New-York Historical Society.

Students are more apt to see paintings as works of artifice or rhetoric, and slave scenes certainly don’t disappoint in that regard. They tend to tell us more about the preoccupations of the artists and the audiences than they do about slaves or slave life. Junius Stearns’ picture Washington as a Farmer (1851), analyzed recently by Maurie McInnis (“Most Famous Plantation of All: The Politics of Painting Mount Vernon” in
Angela D. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffius, eds., Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art [2008]), uses a cast of field slaves to make Washington a benevolent patriarch, and Washington in turn lends his prestige to the slave system he supervises. The more subtle picture Negro Life at the South by Eastman Johnson (1851), carefully unpacked by art historian John Davis (“Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C.,” Art Bulletin 80:1 [1998]), has an authentic setting in the back-alley world of antebellum Washington but even this image is full of narrative anecdotes that satisfied the New York audience’s expectations for a “genre” painting meant to entertain. How do such images help teach students of American history? Do the images lead students off the rails? These are hard questions to answer.

"The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl," 1779, engraving after a painting (c. 1764) by Agostino Brunias. Barbados Museum and Historical Society.

“The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl,” 1779, engraving after a painting (c. 1764) by Agostino Brunias. Barbados Museum and Historical Society.

Take for example the issue of skin color, a major preoccupation of antebellum artists. This is still a loaded issue today, and difficult to discuss openly. The “negroes” in the paintings above, unlike the supposedly “pure” African types shown in the Zealy photographs, show a more obvious spectrum of colors. Did artists simply want to add variety and interest to the scene (color after all is their medium), or were they trying to highlight the genetic intermixture of slave and slaveowner, and the complicated issues of status and race that surfaced? One possible way to study the issue is to do some cross-cultural comparisons. Students can look, for example, at the image of the female “mulatress” in the late 18th-century Caribbean, which, according to a wonderful new book by Kay Dian Kriz (Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700-1840 [2008]), functioned in paintings and prints as a sign of cultural refinement. If we want to do more than simply illustrate how commonly the issue of “intermixture” or “miscegenation” arose, we need to get students thinking aloud about why white audiences wanted to see these images.

One of the basic problems with all these images of slavery is that they were produced not by slaves themselves but by artists or technicians in a free white world, mostly for free white consumers. A standard way around this problem has been to focus on antislavery imagery, but this too has its own set of challenges, which will be the subject of my next post.


  1. Pennee Bender
    Posted April 3, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I am intrigued by Professor Savage’s question of why white audiences wanted to see images of slaves in fine art or photography. It made me wonder where and how these images were seen and by whom. Were the Zealy daguerreotypes or the paintings of plantation life part of a public conversation in the antebellum years?

    We have found that combining a close reading of images with primary text documents on the topic often helps students understand the context of images more easily. Are there any references by slave owners, free blacks, or abolitionists to the public image of slavery that we could use in the classroom? Any suggestions would be helpful.

  2. Kirk Savage
    Posted April 6, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    The Zealy images, as far as we know, were never publicly exhibited. Some paintings, though, provoked considerable comment. Negro Life at the South, for example, was much talked about when it was first exhibited in New York in 1859. In my own classes I have paired that image with a variety of texts. There is commentary from the press on the exhibition (some pro-slavery, some abolitionist), and also public discussion of slavery in D.C. from that era, much of which is cited in Davis’s article. Let me give one notable example. E.S. Abdy’s journal of his trip through D.C. in the 1830s (see the extract in gives some idea of the risks African Americans took when they ventured outside the back-alley world depicted in the painting. They could be kidnapped by unscrupulous slave dealers who would confiscate their identity papers, put them in a slave pen, and then sell them to plantations further south. It’s interesting for students to realize the violence and danger that lurked outside the seemingly closed world of the painting.
    It’s important to be careful about these image-text pairings. The painting is useful as a point of entry for students to learn about the complex world of slavery in the nation’s capital, but the image itself cannot be considered as direct evidence of what that world was really like.
    Much of the public discussion about the depiction of slavery focused on abolitionist imagery, which I will discuss in a future post.

  3. Josh Brown
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Kirk Savage’s comments in his first post about ways that status and race were represented in images of slavery should prompt us-and our students-to not only closely observe but also to try to recapture ways of seeing in the past. This seems even more challenging when we confront popular monochromatic images such as the ubiquitous wood engravings that served as the standard form of published illustration in the nineteenth century. How did readers understand images of plantation life and labor without the assistence of color? What markers of social distinction among enslaved African Americans were provided for readers to discern the social landscape of slave society? This is not to say that such visual categorizations were accurate-or any more accurate than the visual social typing of, say, city life, with its range of class and ethnic caricatures, which appeared regularly in pictorial press coverage of urban news. But, as Kirk says, perceiving the components constituting that visualization helps us capture with greater subtlety and complexity how the viewing public of the era understood the peculiar institution.

  4. Donna T Ray
    Posted April 9, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    In working with these images in the classroom, I wonder what’s the best approach for helping students understand the nineteenth-century mind, and how these images were viewed. What are the key points to address that will help structure the student’s analysis and contextualization of the evidence? I imagine the questions will differ depending on the medium but I’d like to know what are the concrete, practical steps.


  5. Kirk Savage
    Posted April 10, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Donna, You have put your finger on a very interesting but difficult issue. Some terrific work in my field (art history) has been done on the notion of the “period eye,” which refers to the culturally specific ways in which people at a particular time and place saw and interpreted the world around them. So viewers who came from of a certain class in late medieval Europe would see a particular shade of blue as special because they knew it came from a precious mineral, or might be especially attentive to certain patterns of line because they were trained to read complicated calligraphy.
    I think we have to be honest that we will never know for sure how a 19th-century person would see these images. At the same time we can be sure that 19th-century viewers saw the world differently from the way we do.
    One example I like to use is body image. Gentlemen’s portraits in the 18th century and into the 19th often emphasized an ample belly. Now we tend to see these as “beer guts,” signs of laziness and lack of physical fitness. But then they were a mark of social distinction, of the man’s ability to command resources and avoid punishing physical labor.
    This brings to mind Josh’s question about the markers of social distinction that did not rely on color. Body type and carriage were markers; hair was important; so also was clothing. All these stylistic codes have changed since then, some more than others. (I’d say, for example, that hair codes may have changed less the others.)
    You asked for concrete steps to help students understand the 19th-century “period eye.” I think the first step is to help them recognize that the codes have changed and that their own first reactions may well be different from the reactions of a period viewer. Part of the fun of history is recognizing that it is strange in many ways and learning how to understand its strangeness. Even teenagers can appreciate this when they look back at what was in fashion a mere decade ago.
    A second step is to consider for whom the image was made, and who was likely to see it. Most images of slavery were made for free white viewers who had little direct experience of it; the images tended to be either openly anti-slavery, or fantasies of slave life.
    A third step is to look at images whose meaning is more obvious. Caricature is one such category. It is morally offensive, and has to be handled with sensitivity, but it is a mine of information about visual codes. This also helps students appreciate the ambiguity and nuance of pictures such as Johnson’s Negro Life at the South because they so obviously avoid caricature.
    A fourth step is to try to pair the image with commentary made on it at the time. Many scholars have already done this. One problem that often arises is that period viewers usually say many different things, sometimes inconsistent with one another. Sometimes also they just make mistakes, perhaps because they are writing from memory without a reproduction of the image in front of them. But even with all these caveats, what they don’t remark on or notice is often very telling.
    I’ll stop here but make a mental note that it might be worth revisiting the issue in a future posting.

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