- Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain, and: Slavery and the Culture of Tasteby Simon Gikandi, and: Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britainby Catherine Molineux
In John Trumbull’s well-known 1780 portrait of George Washington, the great general stands at attention in the painting’s center, flanked by his enslaved valet, William Lee. With its depiction of an adoring African American boy gazing at his white master from the sidelines, this image was typical of a long tradition of portraiture, dating back to the European Renaissance, in which aristocratic personages used enslaved Africans more or less as fashion accessories. While this conceit seems antithetical to Washington’s humble, republican persona, this mode of self-presentation was likely seen at the time as an appropriate gesture of gentlemanly refinement. Historians today continue to debate such images, however, in hopes of gaining insight into the complex social relations of a time when the freedom of some was still predicated on the enslavement of others. A major exhibition [End Page 555]and two recent books grapple anew with questions of what these visual sources, contrasting dark faces with white ones for aesthetic effect, reveal about the historical construction of racial categories and their contemporary meanings to people in Britain and America.
In 2014, the Yale Center for British Art featured an exhibition entitled Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain, curated by Cyra Levenson, associate curator of education, and Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer, Yale PhD candidates in the history of art. The exhibition included more than sixty artifacts—paintings, sculptures, prints, and decorative objects—containing images of persons of color, usually hovering at the edges or shadowed in the background. As the curators emphasized, these individuals, although often modeled by artists from life, were seldom recognized as subjects in their own right and their presence was often overlooked. To help visitors shift their frames of reference in viewing these artifacts, the curators retitled some of the portraits to bring these marginalized persons into focus. Although the exhibition closed in December 2014, its supporting materials (including digital photos of selected artifacts, interviews with scholars, and a time line) are still available online and offer a valuable teaching resource (http://www.centerforbritishart.org/slavery-and-portraiture/objects).
Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Tastelikewise analyzes high-style portraits that included people of color on their peripheries (see, for example, chapters 1 and 4). He argues that the marginalization of these individuals reflected efforts to employ art to sanitize, and thus deny, the ugliness inherent in England’s reliance on slavery and the slave trade. He also distinguishes between portraits made in England, where absentee plantation owners sought to elevate their social status as art patrons, and those made in the American colonies, where slaves and slaveholding were more prevalent. Gikandi’s stated goal in this book is to demonstrate the “undeniable causal relation” between the institution of slavery and the culture of taste, revealed “through an allegory of reading, an exploration of the tropes and figures, that often point, or lead, to sublimated connections” (xiii). Each chapter examines this theme from different perspectives. Chapters 1–3 focus on the outsized cultural influence of wealthy absentee planters in England. Chapter 4 considers how slave masters in the British West Indies and colonial North America sought to resolve the dichotomies between their desire to elevate Creole culture and the pervasive violence [End Page 556]inherent in their slave societies. The final two chapters consider the perspective of the slaves themselves and how they used various forms of creative expression, such as visual art, music, and public festivals, to create their “own counter culture of taste [that] was essential to the transformation of enslaved Africans...