Frank Bellew, "An Art Critic," Mrs. Grundy (1859). American Antiquarian Society.

Last May and June, I spent a blissful month immersed in the graphic collections of the American Antiquarian Society as a Drawn to Art Research Fellow. Guided by Curator of Graphic Arts Lauren Hewes and Center for Historic American Visual Culture Director Georgia Barnhill, and unbelievably accommodated by the wonderful reading room staff, who took no umbrage at my daily deposit of wads of call slips for individual prints, I accumulated an indecent amount of visual material—including cartoons in a variety of formats, genre prints, pictorial news and humor magazines, illustrated children’s books, decorated envelopes, pictorial games, and drawings from specialized collections. I hope to draw some coherence out of this embarrassment of riches (more on that down the road). But as I now try to make sense of several thousand reference photographs, I am dogged by the eternal methodological question that faces historians when dealing with visual evidence … okay, two questions: How to avoid constructing a litany of exegeses, one per item (this picture shows this, this picture means that, this picture’s artist meant this, etc.); and how to pose questions about the material that move beyond antiquarianism to historical inquiry?

Let me hastily add that I don’t hold any particular animus toward the loving cultivation of archival materials. The very materiality of the items pulled from the AAS stacks each day left me that much more enlightened—whether it was due to the opportunity to inspect the variety of pictorial technique, or to study the fine detail of line work, or to appreciate the subtlety of lithographic tonality (which digitization still seems not fully capable of capturing).

But at some point historical perspective must take over—materiality of another ilk that prompts questions that in turn suggest larger implications. One such question may seem obvious and, yet, may be the hardest to answer: at a particular moment in time and place, what is an image’s use value? It is a question that potentially can illuminate how certain images operated in everyday life while also challenging the notion of there being one interpretation—or one controlling vision—conveyed. And if we probe around enough or are very, very lucky, we may locate testimony that reveals specific ways an image was used and why.

John Tenniel, "The Virginian Slave: Intended as a comparison to Power's (sic) 'Greek Slave,'" Punch, or the London Charivari 20 (1851). Library of Congress.

Let me give one example that involves an old standby, Hiram Powers’s wildly-popular 1844 statue The Greek Slave (as evidenced in its repeated appearance in popular illustrated publications, such as the above cartoon, where the subject also served as an excuse to display female nudity). For some background regarding the reception of the statue, including the cartoon published by the British satirical weekly Punch when the statue was displayed in the 1851 Great Exhibition of All Nations in London’s Crystal Palace (left), see “White into Black: Seeing Race, Slavery, and Anti-Slavery in Antebellum America” on the American Social History Project‘s Picturing U.S. History website.

The testimony in question here was an 1851 letter from British abolitionist William Farmer to William Lloyd Garrison that was first published in Garrison’s The Liberator on July 18, 1851, subsequently reprinted in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and later excerpted in William Still’s compendious 1872 account of anti-slavery resistance, The Underground Railroad. There have been at least two recent discussions about the letter and its meaning: Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation (2010), and Stephen Knadler, “At Home in the Crystal Palace: African American Transnationalism and the Aesthetics of Representative  Democracy,” ESQ: The Journal of the American  Renaissance 56 (2010).* What Farmer’s letter certainly does document is the use—indeed, the appropriation of the meaning—by three escaped slaves of Powers’s statue, abetted by the Punch cartoon, in an ingenious public anti-slavery demonstration (for the longer extract published in Still’s Underground Railroad, go here):

[W]e have, at the present moment, in the British Metropolis, some specimens of what were once American “chattels personal,” in the persons of William and Ellen Craft, and William W. [Wells] Brown, and their friends resolved that they should be exhibited under the world’s huge glass case, in order that the world might form its opinion of the alleged mental inferiority of the African race, and their fitness or unfitness for freedom. A small party of anti-slavery friends was accordingly formed to accompany the fugitives through the Exhibition…. [T]hese ladies and gentlemen, together with myself, met at Mr. Thompson’s house, and, in company with Mrs. Thompson, and Miss Amelia Thompson, the Crafts and Brown, proceeded from thence to the Exhibition. Saturday was selected, as a day upon which the largest number of the aristocracy and wealthy classes attend the Crystal Palace, and the company was, on this occasion, the most distinguished that had been gathered together within its walls since its opening day….

In addition to the American exhibitors, it so happened that the American visitors were particularly numerous, among whom the experienced eyes of Brown and the Crafts enabled them to detect slave-holders by dozens. Mr. McDonnell escorted Mrs. Craft, and Mrs. Thompson; Miss Thompson, at her own request, took the arm of Wm. Wells Brown, whose companion she elected to be for the day; Wm. Craft walked with Miss Amelia Thompson and myself. This arrangement was purposely made in order that there might be no appearance of patronizing the fugitives, but that it might be shown that we regarded them as our equals, and honored them for their heroic escape from Slavery. Quite contrary to the feeling of ordinary visitors, the American department was our chief attraction. Upon arriving at Powers’ Greek Slave, our glorious anti-slavery friend, Punch’s ‘Virginia Slave’ was produced. I hope you have seen this production of our great humorous moralist. It is an admirably-drawn figure of a female slave in chains, with the inscription beneath, ‘The Virginia Slave, a companion for Powers’ Greek Slave.’ The comparison of the two soon drew a small crowd, including several Americans, around and near us. Although they refrained from any audible expression of feeling, the object of the comparison was evidently understood and keenly felt. It would not have been prudent in us to have challenged, in words, an anti-slavery discussion in the World’s Convention; but everything that we could with propriety do was done to induce them to break silence upon the subject. We had no intention, verbally, of taking the initiative in such a discussion; we confined ourselves to speaking at them, in order that they might be led to speak to us; but our efforts were of no avail. The gauntlet, which was unmistakably thrown down by our party, the Americans were too wary to take up. We spoke among each other of the wrongs of Slavery; it was in vain. We discoursed freely upon the iniquity of a professedly Christian Republic holding three millions of its population in cruel and degrading bondage; you might as well have preached to the winds. Wm. Wells Brown took ‘Punch’s Virginia Slave’ and deposited it within the enclosure by the ‘Greek Slave,’ saying audibly, ‘As an American fugitive slave, I place this ‘Virginia Slave’ by the side of the ‘Greek Slave,’ as its most fitting companion.’ Not a word, or reply, or remonstrance from Yankee or Southerner. We had not, however, proceeded many steps from the place before the ‘Virginia Slave’ was removed. We returned to the statue, and stood near the American by whom it had been taken up, to give him an opportunity of making any remarks he chose upon the matter. Whatever were his feelings, his policy was to keep his lips closed. If he had felt that the act was wrongful, would he not have appealed to the sense of justice of the British bystanders, who are always ready to resist an insult offered to a foreigner in this country? If it was an insult, why not resent it, as became high-spirited Americans? But no; the chivalry of the South tamely allowed itself to be plucked by the beard; the garrulity of the North permitted itself to be silenced by three fugitive slaves….

*Thanks to Amber LaPiana for alerting me about the latter!