Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2023
Jennifer Van Horn Portraits of Resistance: Activating Art During Slavery New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 344 pp.; 105 color ills.; 34 b/w ills. Hardcover $60.00 (9780300257632)

In the penultimate paragraph of my Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias (Manchester University Press, 2018), I admitted—with no small degree of shame—that not until I came to the very end of the project did it ever even occur to me to ask, “What did the brown and black women working in Sir William Young’s plantation home see in Brunias’s canvases?” (233). Jennifer Van Horn’s Portraits of Resistance: Activating Art During Slavery makes such questions the very focus of its inquiry. In doing so, this important book at once advocates for and models a critical recentering of the field—and art history as a discipline—by demonstrating the generative possibilities of making primary content and considerations that, heretofore, have been relegated to the realm of afterthought when they have even been thought of at all. 

Van Horn makes the field-reorienting ambition of her project clear from the start, declaring in the opening sentence of the blurb on the book’s dust jacket that, through its study of “how enslaved people mobilized portraiture for acts of defiance,” Portraits of Resistance “tells a new history of American art.” In its investigation of Anglo-American and African American portraits, the text unites two conventionally distinct threads of scholarship and provocatively “asks us to reconceive of . . . artworks that most often featured and were overwhelming made for white patrons—as part of an African American cultural production” by considering how “Black creativity, subjecthood, viewership, and iconoclasm constituted instances of everyday rebellion against systemic oppression” (11). Ultimately, as the book’s title suggests, Van Horn challenges readers to view early American portraiture specifically through the lens of Black resistance and to appreciate the critical perspective gained by doing so. 

In making these considerations central to its study, Portraits of Resistance brings the influence of recent, paradigm-shifting Black studies scholarship, such as that of Christina Sharpe, to the study of American art. Faced with an archive never intended to serve these objectives, Van Horn also engages methodological interventions developed by slavery studies scholars like Saidiya Hartman to critique and address “the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor” (Hartman, W. W. Norton, 2019). The book treats “absence as a starting point for investigation” that encourages unconventional, innovative, and counterintuitive uses of evidence (19) as well as “critical fabulation,” the practice, first essayed by Hartman, of speculative historical scholarship “written with and against the archive” to tell “a history of an unrecoverable past” (“Venus in Two Acts,” 2008).

Preceded by an introduction that establishes the stakes of the project, five body chapters “follow the trajectory of a portrait from creation to consumption to destruction” (22) while also moving chronologically from the eighteenth century through the post-Civil War era. Van Horn foregrounds each chapter with a primary case study that serves as a unifying mechanism as she interweaves an abundance of related content with the main narrative. Thus, the author’s general project and methodology—more so than argument—drive and cohere the individual chapters and the overall text. While the book itself stands as an argument for a new kind of American art history, its narratively driven chapters, bringing together an impressive array of visual material as they move swiftly from one topically driven subsection to the next, feel less like a collection of essays united by clear through-lines of argument and more like a textbook for the future of the field.

Quoting Gilbert Stuart, Portraits of Resistance begins writing its “new history of American art” from the introduction’s first sentence: “Neptune was my first master.  The first idea I ever had of painting the human features I received from seeing that old African draw a face” (1).  In opening with an origin story of national portraiture that places an artist renowned as “the father of American painting” and responsible for the most iconic portraits of George Washington alongside the conventionally overlooked enslaved artist Neptune Thurston, Van Horn simultaneously establishes a foundation for the new narrative of the nation’s art history for which she advocates and attempts to model, in the pages that follow, a method for writing it. How can we tell the story of artists whose histories, when preserved at all, are filtered through a racist archive? How do we make meaning of art works that history did not care to preserve? The introduction uses Thurston and his no longer extant portraits as a case study to begin to unpack the anti-Blackness that has undergirded the project of “American art” since its inception. Van Horn deploys both conventional historical methods and more speculative engagement to imagine the portraits that Thurston drew on hogsheads in late-eighteenth-century Newport (a port city pivotal to the slave trade that was also home to the largest population of enslaved African Americans in New England) and to consider their potential significance in various contexts, including what they might have meant to the artist and to the enslaved viewers who encountered them.

The first chapter “Making Portraits” focuses on Prince Demah, a Black portraitist enslaved in Massachusetts in the years just before the American Revolution. At the chapter’s outset, full-page illustrations of works by Demah and John Singleton Copley face each other, establishing both artists as equally critical to a responsible accounting of early American portraiture. Van Horn describes a colonial world in which Demah’s enslavers could imagine him as Copley’s potential competitor—and, therefore, a worthy investment—and illuminates the context of other enslaved Bostonians working as and/or for artists "to reconsider both the profession of portrait painter and the institution of slavery as they developed together in colonial Boston” (30). Van Horn carefully documents Demah’s career using conventional methods while relying on bolder speculative turns to interlace his narrative with the stories of those for whom the traditional archive yields less information. Based on painter John Smibert’s description of enslaved laborer Cuffee’s pants as “stain’d with divers sorts of paints” (quoted in Van Horn, 35), Van Horn suggests that Cuffee likely worked in the artist’s studio grinding paints. Later, this claim evolves into the more definitive assertion that Smibert’s Portrait of Mary Pemberton evinces “Cuffee’s ability to grind pigments and mix paints” and that its beautifully colored details “were the products of Cuffee’s skilled labor as well as Smibert’s” (36). While Van Horn correctly assesses the inadequacy of conventional methods for developing an inclusive art history, mixing traditional methods with speculative ones presents its own challenges, and scholars must be careful not to undermine the legitimacy of innovative methodologies by spinning generative, perspective-opening speculation into unequivocal fact.

In chapter two, “Fleeting Portraits,” Van Horn transfers her attention from enslaved artists to enslaved subjects, focusing on the Black figure in Edward Savage’s The Washington Family. The chapter offers persuasive circumstantial evidence that the figure, once thought to be William Lee, likely represents Christopher Sheels. Reading the painting through the lens of Sheels’s biography and relationship to Washington allows Van Horn to use it as a rich site for exploring period ideas about Black humanity and debates over slavery while infusing that exploration with the texture and nuance of specificity. However, insisting on a sharper distinction between “portrait” (which Van Horn employs rather freely) and “likeness” puts significant pressure on many of the observations of this chapter that depend on understanding the figure as Sheels. Moreover, as the chapter progresses, it increasingly makes unqualified reference to the figure as Sheels, and what Van Horn initially offers as a probability sometimes reads as fact. The chapter’s conclusion reminds readers that the figure might not be Sheels but simultaneously asserts, “Even if he was not, it is better for the enslaved attendant in The Washington Family to have too many names than for him to have no identity at all . . .” (120). Recalling the power evoked by Malcolm X’s “X”—the absences it signs and the unknowable histories it contains—might it also be worth considering that highlighting “no identity at all” is sometimes better? By evocatively underscoring absence, rather than speculatively filling it, might standing as witness to—and mourner for—all that cannot be recovered also be an effective strategy?

Chapter three, “Haunting Portraits,” also focuses on enslaved African Americans as subjects, this time investigating a portrait for which the subject has been definitively identified but the actual object is lost. The chapter “attempts to recover” the no-longer-extant mid-nineteenth-century portrait of Homer Ryan, an enslaved man living on Madewood Plantation in Louisiana, reputedly made at the behest of the man who enslaved him by Jacques Amans. Van Horn uses the recollections of Louisa Martin, who had also been enslaved at Madewood, to think about what the portrait “looked like, what functions it performed, and what meanings it held for different viewers” (123). Engaging slavery historian Daina Ramey Berry’s notions of “soul value” and “ghost value,” the chapter offers novel considerations about slaveholders’ motives for commissioning portraits of individual bondpeople and explores the enduring power of such portraits as deceptive visual documents that, in their representation of the subject’s seeming autonomy, suggest an agency and “bestow freedom to refuse that they did not in reality possess” (155). The chapter also imagines the place of these portraits in “an alternative Black archive” and the different significance they might have had for enslaved viewers, particularly family members (164). Given Tamara Lanier’s recent legal action against Harvard over the daguerreotypes of the enslaved man she knows as her great-great-great-grandfather “Papa Renty,” these considerations feel particularly timely and important. 

 “Viewing Portraits,” the book’s fourth chapter, uses freedwoman Daphne William’s girlhood memories of her enslavers’ family portraits to focus on the exploration of enslaved viewership threaded through the preceding chapters. Van Horn acknowledges the dearth of surviving evidence of enslaved people’s responses to and ideas about the art they encountered; however, the words of one former bondwoman—"No one could prevent us making use of our eyes”—echo like a refrain throughout the chapter as the author asserts the importance of working to recover this history because viewership offered enslaved people—especially women—unique opportunities for resistance. Van Horn’s creative mobilization of diverse and fragmentary sources to counter absences in the traditional archive works exceedingly well here, and her use of nineteenth-century literature that describes enslaved viewership—especially of that by Black authors Hannah Crafts, Frederick Douglass, and William J. Wilson—is especially effective.

“Destroying Portraits,” the final chapter, follows the journey of John Wollaston’s portrait of Daniel Ward. Seized from the wall of a Charleston plantation after its owners fled in 1865, the painting was repurposed as a fire screen in a freedperson’s home. Today it hangs on the wall of a museum alongside gallery text that fails to acknowledge its history in Black hands. Van Horn offers the portrait as a “a starting point to recover the range and meaning of the iconoclastic acts that enslaved and newly freed African Americans committed against” the cherished objects of those who enslaved them (222) and emphasizes iconoclasm as a mode of resistance that, like rebellious acts of viewing, might have been especially available to enslaved women assigned to domestic labor. An epilogue that brings the threads of the text’s study together and forward to the twentieth century in a consideration of the portraits of Archibald Motley, Jr, concludes the book.

The wealth of previously unknown or understudied visual material and meticulously researched content showcased in Portraits of Resistance constitute a significant scholarly contribution in themselves.  However, initiating an imperative course correction for the field of American art, and for the discipline more generally, Van Horn’s approach to this material—with both its radical possibilities and its potential complications—promises to have an even more compelling and enduring impact.

Mia L. Bagneris
Associate Professor, Art History & Africana Studies, Tulane University