“Am I your friend?”: Black subjectivities in early colonial art

On Tuesday afternoon, Professor Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw of the University of Pennsylvania delivered the annual Lee Frank Art History lecture on “Imagined Subjectivity: Portraits of the Past in Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum.”

Shaw first saw Justus Englehardt Kuhn’s 1710 portrait of Henry Darnall III when she was a first-year graduate student newly enamored of post-modernism; she focused on the collared slave’s position below and behind his master and also his “adoring but unreturned gaze,” and concluded that “placement on the canvas signaled class, power, and humanity.”

“Am I your friend?”: Black subjectivities in early colonial artby Miles Skorpen

When she saw the painting again in Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum,” a work of installation art at the Maryland Historical Society, she took the opportunity to reexamine this 18th century painting through the work of a contemporary 21st century artist. In “Mining the Museum,” Wilson exhibited objects from the Society’s collections in such a way as to spark questions about whose story the museum was really representing.

In one gallery, Darnall’s portrait hung alongside others from the 18th and 19th century. When visitors moved in front of a painting, a spotlight would illuminate the slaves in the painting and they would begin to “speak,” asking questions like “Am I your brother? Am I your friend? Am I your pet?” or “Who combs my hair? Who calms me when I’m afraid? Who makes me laugh?” Professor Shaw called these texts “inquisitive labels that suggest the possibility of enslaved subjectivities,” and praised them for stepping away from the generally authoritative tone of the museum.

“Mining the Museum” inspired Shaw to re-examine the work through Wilson’s questions so as to better situate it in past, present, and future. The audience received a veritable lesson in Maryland history, learning along the way that the Darnalls owned 27,000 acres of land, that Henry Darnall II had seven mixed-race children with his slave Anne Joyce of Barbados, and most importantly, that this portrait is the earliest known representation of a slave in the British colonies. Kuhn is a relatively obscure artist who died only eight years after painting this portrait; why did he choose to include the slave?

Shaw argued that the trope of the subordinated body in art has been around since Roman times, and argued that Kuhn was imitating a French tradition in portraiture of “augmenting beautiful women” by featuring black slaves alongside them. In these portraits, the black body serves as a contrast to the white female sitter, whose rarefied whiteness is enhanced by the slave’s blackness, in effect announcing: “I am comely because she is black.”

This trope reached England with the Calvert family. Shaw showed us a portrait of Cecilius Calvert in which a black attendant pulls aside a curtain to show off Cecilius and his child, and explained that this portrait used the trope of the black body to emphasize power rather than beauty, because “through this act of subordination, he enables the white to govern.”

Shaw also compared the portrait of Henry Darnall III to two other Kuhn portraits, one of Eleanor Darnall, Henry’s younger sister. A King Charles spaniel rests at Eleanor’s feet, and another portrait has a young boy clasping a fawn by the neck; the fawn is collared just as the slave is collared. These animals emphasize both the children’s ability to be decadent and their dominion over the natural world. Just like the animals, the slave is “visually and materially connected to his master… we can see the boy as a spaniel or a fawn, highlighting the subhuman qualities of this portrait.”

The slave in this portrait is without agency and without aim; he is a “hollow shell into which the desire of the colonial gaze can be projected.: Because of this, Shaw concluded, the slave boy “answers Wilson’s question ‘Am I your brother? Am I your pet?’ by whispering ‘I am you.'”