Recovering Identity: Nineteenth-Century African American Portraiture
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American Quarterly 58.4 (2006) 1167-1189

Recovering Identity:
Nineteenth-Century African American Portraiture
Reviewed by
Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. Organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Guest curated by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, University of Pennsylvania. Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts, January 14–March 26, 2006; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, April 21–July 16, 2006; Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, California, August 25–November 26, 2006.
Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. By Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. Seattle: University of Washington Press, with the Addison Gallery of American Art, 2006. 183 pages. $40.00 (paper).

The exhibition Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century and its accompanying catalog appear in the wake of a series of influential and provocative art historical projects from the early 1990s that examine the visual representation of African American figures. These studies consistently describe how systems of representing African Americans throughout the nation's history had been informed by the limiting and defining status that they occupied in an unbending racial hierarchy.1 Of this group of seminal projects, curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw credits in particular Guy C. McElroy's 1990 exhibition, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710–1940, a broad but scrutinizing survey of images depicting African American figures in different media, genres, and production eras, as being particularly influential to her thinking about the visual representation of black figures. Because Facing History presented the work of leading artists, most of whom were of European descent and enjoyed cultural dominance, the exhibition exposed the ubiquity of images that, with varying degrees of aggression, corresponded to prevailing stereotypes. Black figures that were dignified or fully humanized made only rare appearances in the works. A number of the works discussed in Facing History reappear in Portraits of a People, no doubt intentionally, yet Shaw redirects [End Page 1167] interpretation of these images beyond traditional concerns of the academy and museum about how they expose and enact strategies of cultural racism. Whereas Facing History uses images to reveal widely held cultural assumptions about the African American as a "type," Portraits of a People takes a fresh path by paying particular attention to the unique identity of the figure, which was often ignored in the nineteenth-century context, and has remained understudied in contemporary scholarship as well. The exhibition restores recognition to these figures by focusing exclusively on portraits of individuals, virtually all of whom are named. The representation of individuals in approximately seventy paintings, drawings, photographs, silhouettes, and book illustrations is read not in terms of the degree of racism visible in the pictorial execution of facial features, body structure, or clothing, but as statements from the self that demonstrate personal agency in determining one's own representation. In direct and powerful contrast to the myriad negative representations of African Americans circulating in nineteenth-century America that McElroy and his contemporaries have shown us, the images in Portraits of a People communicate through visual properties the personal ambitions, successes, values, and desires of the sitter, providing insight into how these African Americans saw themselves and how they wished to be seen by others.

By focusing on the black self-image, Portraits of a People responds to the criticism of Facing History, most notably articulated by cultural historian Michele Wallace, that it gave scant attention to imagery produced by African Americans who offer their own perspective on social conditions.2 Arguing that the exhibit thus privileged images by white artists as more informative about African Americans and their experiences than corresponding images by blacks, Wallace concludes that such a limited perspective cannot offer a full understanding of the racial economy. As a corrective, she calls for a closer and more thorough examination of African American self-images as an alternative strategy of empowering the other within the space of the museum.

Though Portraits of a People rises to Wallace's challenge in this respect...