Black figures in Victorian art were often seen as inconsequential and not wholly important constituents in a painting. Yet Benjamin Haydon’s The Anti-Slavery Society Convention in The National Portrait Gallery suggests otherwise. The vast number of figures squeezed onto the canvas produces a magnetic result, yet not only due to its sheer size. Drawing closer, it was no longer the mass of faces that intrigued me, but merely two – the profiles of two black gentlemen. One at the forefront, facing away, and one in the audience. Haydon’s intentions are politically clear, if condescending: “a liberated slave, now a delegate, is looking up to Clarkson with deep interest… this is the point of interest in the picture, and illustrative of the object in painting it: the African sitting by the intellectual European, in equality and intelligence.”
The portrayal of black figures in British Victorian art – in particular, art surrounding the abolition of the slave trade – is fascinating. At its height, British ships were responsible for transporting 3.1 million slaves from Africa to America, with only 2.7 million actually surviving the appalling conditions on board. Although initially abolished in 1807, it wasn’t until 1838 that the final abolition of colonial slavery took place. The total abolition of slavery took another 27 years, when President Lincoln passed the Thirteenth Amendment. Many Sub-Saharan Africans were now situated all over the world, particularly in America and Britain; hence, in any art intended to be a reflection of society, their appearance was frequent.
The mystery surrounding their “unusual features”, intrigued European artists and led to many an artistic experimentation. A particularly good example is Thomas Faed’s Visit to the Village School, now situated in the McManus Gallery in Dundee. Painted in 1851, the scene despicts a wealthy laird and his wife visiting the school of which they are patron and patroness. The couple’s black manservant is seen standing alone in traditional English livery, being mocked by the children and becoming the subject of a caricature on the blackboard behind. Faed’s isolation of this manservant poignantly lays bare the inter–racial relationships of the time, those everyday slights on the man’s dignity which were so widely uncontested, and the tensions and attitudes which accompanied these relationships. His notoriety for painting scenes of the downtrodden members of society illustrates empathy combined with probing curiosity, key emotions that repeatedly manifest in Victorian paintings examining the post-slavery period.
At this time we begin to see paintings which depict black figures practicing their skill or craft, or displaying social status, rather than purely for the aesthetic “novelty” of their physical appearance. Edgar Degas, one of the most famous Impressionist artists of the 19th century, painted Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando in 1879. Already having adopted ballet as his visual subject, the opportunity to paint Miss La La, a black circus act, as a challenge too fascinating to refuse. Swinging from a wire merely by her teeth, the agility of the airborne women fascinated Degas – highlighting the artistic interest surrounding blacks, yet also demonstrating how that interest was still unfortunately entwined with the overtly performative, exotic and carnivalesque.
Debates about the representation of black people in art pre-1800 make it difficult to pinpoint the extent to which artistic opinion has changed. Dominique de Menil, founding patroness of The Image of the Black in Western Art, advocated art as “an antidote to prejudice” – that “Western artists… included black figures in positive… and often celebratory ways”. Whereas Yona Pinso’s study of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Adoration of the Magi (1510) drew attention to how even “the decoration of the Black King’s tunic… contained hints of sin and wickedness”: the sirens with human heads and birds’ bodies on his cloth being suggestive of sexual temptation and animality. Known for his studies of blacks in the ancient world, Frank Snowden documents that in ancient Rome and Greece many of the slaves were white; blacks were mostly found in roles unrelated to their race, such as warriors or sailors. Evidence in art proves this harmonious co-existence, finding examples of “sympathy and attraction” between the two races.
James Northcote’s painting of Ira Aldridge, a famous black Victorian actor, titled ‘Othello, the Moor of Venice’ was praised when it was exhibited at the Royal Manchester Institution as being “the best executed painting in the exhibition”. Once you have seen this painting, the high praise comes as no surprise. It truly is an amazing painting, simple yet full of depth and emotion. The way in which the figure is glancing to the side in contemplation, and the softness to the way in which the paint is handled, creates warmth, intimacy and endearment.
Although the depiction of blacks did change as a result of the slave trade, after the abolition the motives behind the change still appear to be politically or racially oriented. It was not until much later in the 20th century that we see just depictions of black figures in Western art. Indeed, a touring exhibition, Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800–1900, opened in Manchester in 2005, prompted by efforts to highlight issues in these past representations. We can only hope that today and always, presiding artistic representations of this kind will take as their foundation Terences words: “I am a man