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African American Bodies: Images of Difference from 1700 to 1850

John Hesselius, Charles Calvert and His Slave, 1761. Oil on canvas, 50” x 39 ⅞”. This painting of Charles Calvert by John Hesselius depicts Calvert with a young boy that his family has enslaved. Calvert, a member of one of Maryland’s most prominent colonial families, stands tall at the center of the canvas and points toward Annapolis in the distance. The young enslaved boy at the left, however, is crouched down, emphasizing his lesser stance in comparison to his master. He is also in shadow, again emphasizing a distinct difference from Calvert’s fully lit figure. While these compositional elements along with the obvious differentiating marker– skin color – denote the difference between master and slave, the clothing the young enslaved boy and Calvert wear complicates this hierarchy of power. The clothing worn by the enslaved boy is very lavish – his yellow suit has a sheen that indicates silk or satin, and it is elaborately decorated with buttons, trim, and cuffs. This unites him to Calvert, who wears a similar suit, and indicates how close the two were. Although one was enslaved and the other was a slave master, the two boys would have been raised together and played together, even if, ultimately, one was the slave of the other. This was one of the great paradoxes of slavery, and it is clearly visible in this painting.

“African American Bodies: Images of Difference between 1700 and 1850” examines portraits and landscapes in order to understand how race was represented and differentiated during this period, and how these representations changed over time. [Remember - this needs to be 3-5 paragraphs - mine is much to short!]

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Lucy Parke Byrd, early 1700s. Oil on canvas. Like Charles Calvert and His Slave, this portrait of Lucy Parke Byrd emphasizes the difference between the subject of this portrait and her enslaved companion. And skin color is not the only marker of difference. Byrd is at the center of the portrait and is bathed in light while the young boy she has enslaved is in the background and is also heavily shadowed. Unlike the later portrait of Calvert, the actual racial identity of the boy Byrd enslaved is ambiguous. It is unclear if he is of African American or Native American heritage, and people of both groups were enslaved during this period. The objects in the portrait – the basket at the left and the cloth in the boy’s hand – point toward a Native American identity for the enslaved boy as these were products commonly associated with this group. Overall, the portrait uses similar visual devices to denote difference, but here the racial identity of the enslaved person is also in question.

Franklin R. Street, Portrait of Elizabeth Brown Montier, 1841. Oil on canvas, 35” x 28”. Like the portrait of her husband, Elizabeth Montier is dressed lavishly and is sitting in a luxurious setting. These elements indicate the social and economic status of the couple, and her comfortable stance within this setting conveys her ease with her position. In fact, if one compares the image of Elizabeth Montier with that of Lucy Parke Byrd, there are striking similarities in terms of the costume s and stances of the two women. Nearly 150 years apart, the portraits indicate how different circumstances could be – the status of African Americans had changed from enslaved people included in the background of portraits to free people that became the main subjects of portraits.

Franklin R. Street, Portrait of Hiram Charles Montier, 1841. Oil on canvas, 35” x 28”. These portraits of Hiram Charles Montier and his wife Elizabeth are the earliest surviving portraits of an African American couple. Montier was a successful bootmaker in Philadelphia and the dress of the sitters as well as the spaces they occupy indicate this economic prosperity. Montier sits at a table covered with a fabric cloth with books both on the tabletop and in his hand, indicating that Montier was an intelligent and well-read man. Drapes and a column appear in the space behind him, while a landscape stretches out in the distance. Notably, these portraits adopt many of the conventions used in portraits of elite white Americans during the period, many of which can be traced back to the portraits of Calvert and Byrd that are also included in this exhibition. By adopting these conventions, the Montiers are proclaiming their equality with prosperous whites typically portrayed in portraits.

Francis Guy, Perry Hall Slave Quarters, c. 1805. Oil on canvas, 21 13/16” x 29 59/64”. This landscape painting complicates the version of slavery we’ve seen in the portraits of Lucy Parke Byrd and Charles Calvert. In these images, the power of master and slave and the difference that this power was based on is clearly articulated and emphasized. In this painting of Maryland plantation Perry Hall, however , the sense of difference is minimized as white and black men work side by side in the fields (the plantation’s outbuildings are visible in the distance). In fact, the race of any of these workers is nearly indistinguishable as the figures themselves are so small. This landscape painting – although entitled Perry Hall Slave Quarters – adds another dimension to the images of slavery as white and black figures are depicted taking part in the same activity and much of the visual and compositional elements that emphasized difference in the Calvert and Byrd portraits has been minimized.

 

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