Jill Vaum Rothschild

Patricia and Phillip Frost Predoctoral Fellow
Fellowship Type
  • Predoctoral Fellow
Fellowship Name
Patricia and Phillip Frost
  • University of Pennsylvania
Between Subject and Type: Representing Free African Americans in Antebellum Portraiture

By the time of the full abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, visual culture had served as an arena to address the social upheaval caused by emancipation for more than half a century. The growing visibility of free African Americans in Northern antebellum cities prompted frequent visual representation in genre paintings, minstrel shows, and printed caricatures. Without the structured hierarchy of enslavement, these images reinforced status by assigning African Americans to a limited number of roles in both the American social fabric and its visual culture. By contrast, portraiture provided a vehicle for individual narratives and experiences to find rare pictorial expression.

My dissertation probes the limits of visualizing African American freedom in painted portraits made between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. I examine paintings by Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Waterman Wood, and William Sidney Mount within the image cultures of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York in which they were produced and consumed. Three chapters explore the possibilities and challenges of conveying free status in relation to issues of display and medium, as well as to period theories of race and laws governing emancipation.

To date, scholars have primarily looked to abolitionist propaganda and commemorative monuments to analyze the impact of emancipation on the visual arts and urban space. Art historians have also probed the ways in which national debates over slavery and Westward expansion were inextricably associated with the black body in antebellum genre painting. For these reasons, the iconography of emancipation has received greater attention than have signs of freedom constituted by the labor, dress, and gestures of daily African American life. My dissertation examines the degree to which freedom and its lived expression manifested in visual culture, as well as the role different pictorial formats played in conveying and curtailing free identity.