Chapter Four—Making American Slavery Visible

Chapter Four, “Close Encounters: Taste and the Taint of Slavery” focuses on images of slaves and those who owned them, opening with the self-fashioning gestures of male planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake, and closing with William Blake’s 1793 engravings of slaves being tortured in Suriname. Through these images, Gikandi investigates how the colonial planter class “develop[ed] forms of art that conjured a pure and refined image of self and community and yet were rooted in the totality of plantation life” (166).

Here, I’ll just focus on a section from the middle of the chapter, part 4, where Gikandi describes how “the political economy of slavery made it difficult for a civilized way of life—or a culture of taste—to be simply transplanted to the American colonies” (166). Portraits in North America, he argues, became more realistic, gaining “a sense of character and background” (167), and “acknowledg[ing] colonial difference as the informing condition of the work of art” (168), only when they began to include “the figure of the slave, the subject/object that made the region distinctive from the Europe it worked hard to imitate” (169).

So how did portraits of the American planter class do this? Gikandi zeroes in on one such portrait, which may also be the first American painting with a black person in it: Justus Engelhardt Kühn’s portrait of Henry Darnall III, from about 1710. Darnall is front and center, with one of his slaves (a boy of about his own age) standing behind him. 

Images of slave owners with their human property are not unique to the Americas, Gikandi notes, but claims that there is “a subtle difference” between European portraits that include enslaved figures, and the versions from Colonial North America (172). In fact, Gikandi claims, “it is not an exaggeration to say that it was the presence of the slave in the frame that enabled the coming of age of the American portrait” (172). But why “American,” if eighteenth-century Maryland thought of itself as thoroughly British?

Although Gikandi acknowledges that enslaved figures appear in portraits from Europe, too, this is one place I wish he’d have brought his analysis further. Wikipedia offers a collection of such portraits of white aristocrats posed next to black slaves—a number of whom are wearing silver collars, like the enslaved boy in Kühn’s painting. In this context, then, the flip side of Kühn’s having made the economic and social life of the Maryland plantation visible is that he had to use a specifically Continental trope to make it happen. (Compare Kühn’s painting with Antoine Pesne’s portrait of Frederick the Great, also from the same decade.) Kühn portrays Darnall as a child aristocrat in the European imperial tradition first—and the future heir of his family’s land and slaves only by extension. That is, it’s the opening up of American portraiture to influences from across the Atlantic—the German painter who was familiar with continental styles, painting the image of an enslaved African-descended child and his European-descended future owner—that makes the portrait of Darnall more groundedly “American.”

As a whole, Slavery and the Culture of Taste offers a really impressive model for how to put the different scenes of the Anglophone Atlantic in conversation with each other, a project that poses huge rhetorical and conceptual challenges for any author. So the reading of Kühn’s painting for its especial Americanness feels surprising. Fortunately, later parts of the chapter write over this faint whiff of exceptionalism, going on to consider the English artist Eyre Crowe’s 1861 paintings of a Richmond, Virginia slave market, and John Greenwood’s 1750s painting of a Surinam tavern. If the reading of Kühn’s painting itself doesn’t link back to the broader world in which taste and slavery circulated, embedding it  with other images from across that world helps fill in the gap.

By the end of the chapter, although Gikandi doesn’t say so explicitly, one payoff is that  it’s easy to see Blake’s engravings as likewise giving form to “self and community rooted in the totality of plantation life”—but this time from Blake’s position as a critic of the slave system, not as a reinforcement of the social ambitions of its wealthiest members. By the end of the chapter, “Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave” is as much a portrait of the planters’ cruelty and greed as it is a representation of the woman they are torturing.

Dorothy Couchman is a Phd candidate in the English Department at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation examines enslaved characters in eighteenth-century Anglophone novels, drama, and verse.

3 responses to “Chapter Four—Making American Slavery Visible

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for this fine post, Dorothy.

    I was especially struck by this passage:

    “It’s the opening up of American portraiture to influences from across the Atlantic—the German painter who was familiar with continental styles, painting the image of an enslaved African-descended child and his European-descended future owner—that makes the portrait of Darnall more groundedly “American.””

    I was looking at the Wikipedia gallery of nobles posing (mostly) with enslaved children for comparison, and I’m wondering which visual cues seem to suggest to you the “American,” provincial or colonial context (what you call grounding) for the Kuhn portrait? The plantation setting and architecture? The almost symmetrical pairing of the two children, free and enslaved?

  2. If this work is representative of Dorothy Couchman’s writing, I eagerly await her first published work after graduation!

  3. Dorothy Couchman

    Dave, I’m not actually convinced that the Kühn portrait does look specifically American—hence the “American” in scare quotes. But then I started looking at the dead bird the enslaved boy is holding. (Darnall, for his part, holds an arrow that points toward the fancifully baroque plantation grounds on the right, suggesting that the dead bird is only the most picturesque of the natural resources available to be harvested, via the labor of slaves, from Darnall’s family’s plantation.) From the markings on the bird’s head, it could be bobwhite quail–which IS unambiguously from the Americas. Bobwhites can be found between the Great Lakes and eastern Mexico, as well as in Cuba. For me, though, it comes down to how you want to read the props that communicate Darnall’s social position: the other boy, the bird, the plantation. Darnall’s parents, who I assume paid for the painting, would have recognized the bird as one of the types of game that could be caught on their land. Viewers without this knowledge, though, would have seen just the overall iconography of empire and dominion, in which the land, the slave and the produce that the slave’s labor extracted from the land would only need to be tweaked in small ways to communicate a wide variety of colonial contexts.
    I guess what I’m really getting at here is how early-eighteenth-century description communicates specificity in ways that often look general/broad. So it seems important to think about what kind of specific American identity, if any, this painting is communicating, and what that specificity means, in the first place.