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Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North

When our fearless leader, Charmaine A. Nelson, curated Through An-Other’s Eyes: White Canadian Artists – Black Female Subjects back in 1999, she was inserting Canadian Art into a Transatlantic art historical conversation that had been going on since the mid-twentieth century in the USA and Britain. The fields of African American Art History and Race and Representation had been tackling the vexed question of how enslaved and free black people had been represented in western art for decades. Unsurprisingly most of the scholars doing this work come, like Charmaine, from an Art History background which equipped them to explore the complicated issues of cultural access, representation, production, exhibition, and circulation.

As Charmaine has made clear through her path-breaking work at Slavery North, Canada’s blind spot for Transatlantic Slavery is shared by other nations and regions, including the US North. Therefore, Unnamed Figures is a refreshing and much-needed intervention in these overlapping fields which, as you might guess, have long focused on the study of American Slavery and black representation that emerged in the US South. Much like Canada then, what has gone ignored and un(der)studied is the role that white Americans in the US North played in enslaving people of African descent and, connectedly, the role played by white artists in the representation of these populations.

Fig. 1: Gustine Hurd (1833-1910), Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901), African American Painter (c. 1880), albumen silver print, 14.5 x 10.2 cm (image), 45.7 x 35.6 cm (mat), 46.5 x 36.4 x 3.2 cm (frame), gift of Sandra and Jacob Terne, NPG 76.66, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY.


To understand the relevance of these questions, one must recall that western “high” art (think oil paintings, and marble or bronze statues) was deliberately orchestrated as the exclusive domain of white men. While white women and people of colour were often welcomed as subjects of representation, it was not until the nineteenth century that they were grudgingly admitted into art schools and academies. But their initial inclusion was not fully equitable since women of all backgrounds and black people were often forbidden from studying from the unclothed model in life drawing classes, a tactic which deliberately excluded them from the most revered genres of “high” art including history painting, portraiture, the nude, and genre studies (images of human activity), all of which required a mastery of human anatomy. By the way, this mastery came via two traditional pathways, life drawing classes and learning from cadavers at medical schools. Needless to say, both pathways were shut to most white women and all black people until deep into the nineteenth century and even the twentieth. Examples of this are the African Canadian and African American painter Edward Mitchell Bannister (Fig. 1) who lamented the deficits in his abilities caused by his exclusion from formal art education. The mixed-race American (indigenous and black) neoclassical sculptor Edmonia Lewis  (Fig. 2) and her white female peers Anne Whitney and Harriet Hosmer suffered the same exclusion which the latter two were able to circumvent with private tutoring from medial doctors via their upper class family connections.

Fig. 2: Henry Rocher, Edmonia Lewis (1870), National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C., USA.

Given all of this, the profound relevance of Unnamed Figures is now likely coming into focus. Explorations of imagery of black individuals and communities in the US North have been almost entirely absent, in large part because the northern US states, much like Canada, participate in a shared delusion that slavery never transpired in places like New York State, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. And if slavery never happened there, then black people were not historically present, and, well…you get the picture. But of course, slavery did happen in those regions. It was just abolished earlier than in the south.

Spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue (a sizeable work of almost 300 pages) include print culture, photography, artifacts, and paintings from various genres including portraiture (of people and houses), landscapes, and genre studies. The show was created by the curator Emelie Gevalt of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City where it initially ran from 15 November 2023 to 24 March 2023. Gevalt ably critiques the imposed “social invisibility” of various black figures in artworks which represent them in “secondary positions,” often stripping them of their individuality, in spite of their central work as enslaved people who made the worlds of their white enslavers function. Indeed, the exhibition exposes the ways that white artists exploited black people as “accessories to power” of their elite white sitters (the subjects of portraits). Focusing on New England, New York, and the wider Mid-Atlantic, Unnamed Figures sheds light on the “economic and personal realities” of enslaved and free black people in these overlooked regions.

Fig. 3: Anonymous, Samuel Shrimpton (1675), oil on canvas, 74.93 x 61.9 cm, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, USA.


The exhibition and catalogue ably illuminate the colonial practice wherein white elite sitters included enslaved people in their oil portraits. To understand the impact, you must acknowledge that the function of “high” art portraiture (often commissioned by the sitter, a relative thereof, or an institution to which they belonged) was to capture a flattering and not necessarily an accurate likeness. The usefulness of enslaved people was to articulate the power, wealth, and colonial reach of the enslaver through immediate contrast. Therefore, enslaved black sitters in such works (children and adults) were standardly represented through compositional and symbolic choices as inferior to their white enslavers. Such is the case with an anonymous painting of the white Boston-based merchant, Samuel Shrimpton (Fig. 3). In the darkened, right lower quadrant of the painting, one can barely make out the small, faint figure of an enslaved boy standing behind a table laden with books.

Powerfully too, both the exhibition and the catalogue feature photographic portraits of black sitters (for which they were patrons of their own likenesses) and creations by black artists and artisans like the mixed-race portraitist Joshua Johnson. Across the Americas it was typically enslaved males, often mixed-race, who were trained as carpenters, coopers, and blacksmiths, and concomitantly, were able to escape agricultural field work. The catalogue touches upon the work of enslaved blacksmiths, illuminating the aesthetic, symbolic, and practical roles of their work. Born to an enslaved black mother and white father in rural Baltimore County, Johnson first apprenticed as a blacksmith before establishing himself as a sought-after portraitist with clientele that included Baltimore’s wealthy white merchant-class families. (Fig. 4) In her catalogue essay on Johnson, Jill Vaum Rothschild explains how Johnson is still largely steeped in mystery due to a lack of knowledge of his training, the duration and extent of his oeuvre, and the date and place of his death. But shows like this not only introduce the artwork of people like Johnson to new audiences, but inevitably act as prompts for more research.

Fig. 4: Joshua Johnson, Portrait of a Man (Abner Coker), [c. 1805-1810], oil on canvas, 70.8 x 55.88 cm, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME, USA.


In case you missed the show in NYC, you’re in luck. It recently re-opened at Historic Deerfield (Massachusetts, USA) on 1 May 2024 where it is scheduled to run until 4 August 2024.