Portraits of Resistance: Activating Art during Slavery
“Neptune [Thurston] 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.” So declared Gilbert Stuart, premier portraitist of early America. An enslaved cooper, Neptune Thurston chalked portraits on the heads of the barrels he fabricated that carried commodities from Newport, Rhode Island, to the Caribbean. This paper examines Thurston’s unusual portraits (long ago destroyed) to argue these ephemeral renderings on hogsheads were a form of resistance. The enslaved cooper’s intended audience was not the young Stuart but the dockworkers of African descent who hauled barrels in Newport and the Caribbean. Thurston bestowed agency and individuality on a series of wooden forms that traveled across the Atlantic, in the process reversing his own attempted dishumanization. This paper forms the introduction to my book project, which charts how people of African descent in 18th- and 19th-century America interacted with portraits, as producers and viewers as well as subjects and iconoclasts. Moving from northeastern ports to the plantation South, the book tells an alternative history of American art: how enslaved people mobilized portraiture for acts of artistic defiance.
Jennifer Van Horn holds a joint appointment as Associate Professor in Art History and History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America, released by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute in 2017. Her book was a finalist for the George Washington Prize and received an honorable mention for the Louis Gottschalk Prize (ASECS). In 2018–2019 she was a Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. There she continued work on her second book, Portraits of Resistance: Activating Art during Slavery. A piece of this project, published in the Art Bulletin, was awarded the National Portrait Gallery’s inaugural Director’s Essay Prize (2019).
Art History Program
School of Art & Design Visitors Committee