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White into Black: Seeing Race, Slavery, and Anti-Slavery in Antebellum America

Sarah L. Burns, Indiana University
Joshua Brown, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Visual Culture of the Era

Over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States became a nation immersed in pictures. The eighteenth century was, by comparison, a story of visual scarcity: only the affluent could afford portraits, and books and periodicals published in the colonies and in the early years of the republic included only occasional illustrations. Of the pictures available, many were crude woodcuts that couldn’t compete with the intricacy of their British and European counterparts.

But by the third decade of the nineteenth century, Americans became accustomed to seeing and having pictures. The country was changing and, for different reasons, Americans sought images that helped them define themselves and their nation. The country’s continuing settlement and geographic expansion–and accompanying fear about the loss of America’s natural scenery–prompted a surge in landscape paintings and prints. At the same time, America was becoming a more political nation, and the demand for political cartoons and prints grew as white male suffrage increased and the era was characterized by heated election campaigns and debates. And every respectable home was considered incomplete, according to domestic tastemakers, without appropriate art on the walls (usually in the form of inexpensive colored prints) to indicate the refinement of the household.

The avalanche of pictorial publications and products also was the result of technological innovations in printing that both sped production and improved the quality of images, coupled with expanding transportation and communications networks. The vast effusion of graphic materials confronting the nineteenth-century American included: an ever-increasing range of illustrated periodicals (exemplified by the competing news magazines Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper); the blossoming of the political cartoon, from individually-printed pictures sold in the street or by subscription to the appearance of visual commentary in magazines; individually-published decorative, portrait, comic, genre, and topical prints; commercial trade cards advertising merchandise; greeting cards; sheet music covers; and theater and campaign posters. Many more homes now included family portraits on their walls as traveling painters brought their services–often rendered quickly and with limited skill–into the countryside. And the opportunity to view art also increased, whether you were a city-dweller visiting the first museums or the popular exhibits sponsored by the American Art Union, or rural citizens who might purchase the Art Union’s prints through the mail or attend a touring panorama (gigantic paintings of historic events or localities that seemed to place the viewer in the scene) brought to your community by an itinerant promoter.

Perhaps the greatest change in the American visual world in the nineteenth century was the invention of photography. After 1839, individual and family photographs became sought-after items. Photographic salons, where customers could both view pictures of the famous and pose to have their own likeness captured, multiplied in every American city. Traveling painters turned photographers now offered portrait services in the countryside. And even before the negative was perfected, which allowed the reproduction of photographs, the public eagerly purchased portraits of illustrious and notorious Americans in the form of lithographic prints–reproducible drawings based on photographs.