HISTORY in CONTEXT | Past and Present: Artists in Conversation

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Historical Background for Teachers

For more than five centuries, European nations engaged in the enslavement of people from West Africa. The first nation to abolish the international slave trade was Denmark in 1803. In 1807, King George III signed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but it was not until 1834 that Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act outlawing the owning, buying, and selling of humans as chattel in its colonies.

The United States Constitution stipulated that Congress could not abolish the slave trade before 1808, but once it was able to, Congress acted. The U.S. did not abolish slavery in its own states and territories, however, until 1865. By 1836, the Dutch, French, Spanish, Brazilian, and Portuguese governments had also abolished their trades, but Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888. Before 1820, approximately four Africans crossed the Atlantic for every European.

The religious sect of Congregationalists were divided on the question of slavery. In 1700 Samuel Sewall, known today for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials, wrote the first antislavery pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, published in North America. By the mid-eighteenth century, Quakers had rejected it. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, both with significant Quaker populations, became some of the first colonies to see a large divestiture in the ownership of enslaved people, but non-Quaker colonists continued in the international trade until it ended in 1808.

Connecting to the Art at the NBMAA

John Smibert, Benjamin Colman, c.1740, Oil on canvas, 49 3/4 x 39 3/4 in. (126.4 x 101 cm), Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1948.01

John Smibert’s portrait of Benjamin Colman is the oldest work in the NBMAA collection and dates to 1740. As the first academically trained artist in the colonies, many of Smibert’s clients would have been the most prestigious, or at least the ones most able to afford the price of the outstanding artist of the day.

Economic prosperity was on the rise in Colman’s Boston, propelled by people from Africa, both freed and enslaved. Merchants like Benjamin Colman, depicted in John Smibert’s portrait of 1740, were not the only ones to engage in the slave trade or to rely upon enslaved labor. According to Benjamin Colman’s father, writing from Boston in 1723, “We are serv'd here in this Town very much by blacks or Negro's in our Houses. Scarce a House but has one, excepting the very poor.”[1]

Charles Willson Peale, New England Merchant, 1765, Oil on canvas, 18 x 15 in. (21 5/8 x 18 1/2 x 2 1/4 in.), Charles F. Smith Fund, 1971.06

Charles Willson Peale’s painting The New England Merchant of 1765 is a standard type of portrait: his merchant is depicted in a small room, leaning on a desk and holding a letter in his left hand. The quill, inkwell, and papers on the desk are references to the sitters' occupation. The small seascape visible through the open window is entirely appropriate for a Boston merchant, who would conduct much of his business through shipping. The letter is a commonly used device to record the identity of the sitter, whose name usually appears on the paper. The words on this letter are, unfortunately, illegible, and thus the man’s identity remains unknown.

Reflective of the times, New England merchants profited from the Atlantic slave trade in myriad ways—as traders in the Atlantic and as purchasers of goods from plantations in the Caribbean, the American Chesapeake and American South. They also profited as enslavers themselves.

In 1700, more than 42% of New York City's households held enslaved men, women and children. Newport was the largest slave-trade port in North America, and all of the major northern cities and ports, such as Boston, Hartford, and Philadelphia, had large enslaved populations. Ownership of enslaved people dwindled in the North after the American Revolution, and various emancipation acts controlled manumission, but enslavement persisted into the 1840s in the New England states.[2]

Ralph Earl, Gentleman with Attendant, ca. 1785-88, Oil on canvas, 30 3/4 x 25 3/4 in. (78.1 x 65.4 cm), Harriet Russell Stanley Fund, 1948.6
Titus Kaphar, Jaavon & the Unknown Gentleman, 2011, Oil on canvas, 26 × 18 in. (66 × 45.7 cm), Director’s Discretionary Purchase Fund, 2011.60

African-descended people in New England worked in homes, on farms, and in shipping. “Gentleman with Negro Attendant,” painted between the years 1785 and 1788 by Ralph Earl, depicts an unnamed man of wealth with an enslaved African child who waits on him. In this portrait, the child serves as a prop to enhance the older man’s wealth also evidenced by his luxurious jacket, embroidered vest and gold buttons. By this date, the sitter’s hair is real, yet still powered as evidenced by the detail of dander on his collar.

As an artist, Earl painted portraits in Connecticut from 1788-1798, significantly tempering his academic style, gained from study in England and New York. He chose a less formal style that reflected his subjects’ likenesses and their surroundings and adopted a more simplified technique, including a focus on primary colors for which pigments were more readily available.

In response to Earl’s work, the NBMAA commissioned artist Titus Kaphar to appropriate Earl’s work in a contemporary vision. The work became the first in a Kaphar series that focused on identity. In this work, Kaphar uses strong as well as subtle symbols to refocus our attention to the worth of the young man, no longer a prop but a person.

Kaphar states, "Much of black history recorded in Western art is summarized visually by three roles: enslaved, in servitude, or impoverished. But beyond this limited social order lies a people of dignity and strength, whose survival is nothing less than miraculous. Within the context of 19th-century paintings most black characters play, at best, secondary roles in the composition. The implication of hierarchy through compositional positioning (that is, figures in the composition) is a fundamental theme explored in this piece.”

Audio Resources

Dann Broyld, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of African American History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the author of Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region during the Final Decades of Slavery.

1. Dann Broyld - Constitution and Compromise

2. Dann Broyld - The Democratic Process

3. Dann Broyld - Earl and Kaphar

Historical Background Resources

Titus Kaphar

Can Art Amend History? A Ted Talk by Titus Kaphar in which he discusses “what happens when we shift our focus and confront unspoken truths.”

Can Beauty Open Our Hearts to Difficult Conversations? A Ted Talk by Titus Kaphar in which he discusses the artistic evolution of his career.

African American Portraits

Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. An article describing how portraiture has played a “singularly powerful role in the shaping of individual identity through the visual arts.”

Lesson Plan

Click here to download a lesson planning guide for Past and Present: Artists in Conversation.


[1] Niel Caplan and Benjamin Colman, “Some Unpublished Letters of Benjamin Colman, 1717-1725.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1965, Third Series, Vol. 77 (1965), 101-142, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2...

[2] Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and" Race" in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), 52-54, 73, 100, 172, 261; Hendrik Hartog, The Trouble with Minna: A Case of Slavery and Emancipation in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 83, 118.