Facing Freedom: Tracing African American Emancipation in Antebellum Portraiture


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


History of Art


By the time of the full abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, visual culture had served as an arena to address the social upheaval of emancipation for more than half a century. The growing visibility of free African Americans in Northern antebellum cities prompted their frequent visual representation in genre paintings, minstrel shows, and printed caricatures. This project argues that unlike the generalizing impulse of these formats, portraiture enabled individual narratives and experiences to find rare pictorial expression. “Facing Freedom” places portraits by Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Waterman Wood, and William Sidney Mount in dialogue with a broader visual culture responding to emancipation to probe the limits of visualizing freedom between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.