Black Depiction in Art in the 19th Century
By Lindsey Christina
During the nineteenth century, images of African Americans were painted because there was a lot of turmoil surrounding the issue of slavery in America. These paintings were used as both anti-slavery and pro-slavery propaganda. In the article titled “Cinque: Antislavery Portraiture and Patronage in Jacksonian America” Richard Powell writes about an oil painting by Nathaniel Jocelyn from 1840 titled Cinque. Cinque, also known as Sengbeh Pieh, was a twenty-five year old black man who was abducted by the Portuguese. He, along with other slaves, was sent to Cuba via the Amistad. Once arriving, Cinque freed himself and killed white members of the crew, including the captain, and demanded that the remaining crew members travel with the Africans back to Sierra Leone. They were spotted near Connecticut and imprisoned. John Quincy Adams represented the Africans in court and they were freed and sent back to Sierra Leone. Cinque was seen as a hero or icon after this dramatic event.Jocelyn, commissioned by Robert Purvis, painted a portrait of Cinque holding a staff and wearing a white toga-like article of clothing. The landscape behind the figure shows mountains and trees. The artist paints a dark figure on a light background, which at the time, was unusual. The composition, attire, gaze and expression, and anatomy of the figure are more characteristic of Greco-Roman artwork as opposed to the ways African-Americans were portrayed in pieces of art at the time. This piece can also be compared to many religious works. In Jocelyn’s piece, Cinque is portrayed positively.
Purvis believed in social reform and was a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. It is believed that perhaps Purvis commissioned Jocelyn to paint this portrait of Cinque as a publicity stunt. Some believe that there was a marketing campaign behind Jocelyn’s portrait of Cinque because prints of Cinque were distributed among many different antislavery organizations and there is some discrepancy as to when the Jocelyn’s painting was actually completed and when it was referenced in the media. The dates are important because the Supreme Court did not decide to free the Africans until March 1841 and the earliest references to the paintings and/or engravings of Cinque are around 1840. It is speculated that the creation of this painting, the timing of its release, and the events surround Amistad could have been a well-orchestrated movement by abolitionists at the time.
Contrarily to Cinque’s portrait, Theodore Gericault painted Portrait Study in 1819 which appears to send a vague message regarding the stance of slavery. There are no clear or observable signs that define who this man is or what he represents. The setting is unclear and there are no other objects in this painting that would lead the viewer to lean one way or another as to whether he is a slave. However, due to the nature of the subject’s facial expression and gaze, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for him. He is not smiling and his eyes look weary. Also, from what the viewer can see, his attire seems tattered and unclean. Someone may view this portrait and see an African American man that is suffering due to the nature of the times.
During the same time period as the other incredibly diverse portraits of black men, Raphaelle Peale painted a portrait of Absalom Jones in 1810. This portrait is clearly anti-slavery because this gentleman appears to be a very distinguished and prominent figure. He sits confidently and is dressed in fine clothing. The clothing that he wears and the book he holds suggests that he may be a religious figure. An African American man portrayed as a religious likeness would perhaps be unusual for this time period.
The Captive Slave (1827), painted by John Phillip Simpson, also sends an uncertain message to the viewer. One could view this man as a black man that belongs in chains and ragged clothing reinforcing the practice of slavery in America. On the contrary, as in Portrait Study, compassion or consideration could be provoked by this image lending empathy towards the subject. The slave is gazing upwards as if looking for help, guidance, freedom, or spiritual comfort. I would argue that because of the minimal information that is provided by his surroundings it is not undeniably a pro-slavery or anti-slavery painting. In this instance, I believe it is up to the viewer to consider their own ideologies and decide their stance.