A Groundbreaking Art Exhibition Explores the Undertold Stories of Black People in the Antebellum North

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A Groundbreaking Art Exhibition Explores the Undertold Stories of Black People in the Antebellum North

Some exhibitions are designed to throw viewers off balance. The American Folk Art Museum’s current “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North” is one such show. Aiming to take on the history of systematic erasure of Black figures in art, “Unnamed Figures” also pushes viewers to consider how these omissions have negatively shaped our perspectives on race and class for centuries.

Take, for example, a landscape painting dating to 1796 by Ralph Earl that comes about halfway into the show. Measuring about 45 by 52 inches and now in the collection of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the work depicts a house and village shop in New Milford, Connecticut, owned by Elijah Boardman, a wealthy white textile merchant. “This piece usually gets talked about in terms of the architecture and Elijah Boardman because he owned the architecture,” Emelie Gevalt, AFAM’s curatorial chair at AFAM, told ARTnews.

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But, the full story behind this painting might come as a surprise to many, even today. “When I first saw [this painting], it really took my breath away because it just looks very sterile. It looks very white. I can’t imagine my ancestors being there,” Bonnie Johnson, a descendant of a Black family (the Phillipses) who worked for the Boardmans, says in a recording that accompanies the piece’s display.

On view until March 24, “Unnamed Figures” was, in part, organized around the idea that most people would imagine a typical New England town, especially in the late 18th century, as consisting of only white people. In reality, Gevalt said, “These paths were being walked by everyone in the community who was going to the general store, and from the Boardman account books, we know numerous Black community members were going.”

A landscape painting of a house and other buildings in late 18th-century Connecticut.

Ralph Earl, Houses Fronting New Milford Green, New Milford, Connecticut, ca. 1796.

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Curated by Gevalt; RL Watson, a professor of English and African American studies at Lake Forest College in Illinois; and Sadé Ayorinde, an American art fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Unnamed Figures” reconstructs stories of Black people living in the North from the late 1600s to the early 1800s. The historical lack of critical engagement with these narratives has ultimately resulted in deep-rooted misconceptions about the nature of Black life, the curators argue; this show then serves as a much-needed corrective in recovering those legacies and histories.

The curators set that intention very early in the exhibition, with a series of pieces by Francis Guy dedicated to the Hall family, who were enslaved on the Perry Hall plantation in Baltimore County, Maryland, from the 18th to the early 19th century. In one version of the scene (now owned by the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library in Delaware but not included in the AFAM exhibition), a Black nursemaid, whose name the curators believe could be Sib Hall, is visible. Another version, which is included in the exhibition, shows the Hall family walking on rolling hills with the plantation house in the background. None of the Black figures in the other works in this section yet have recoverable identities.

A painting showing a house with ships in the backyard.

Rufus Hathaway, A View of Mr. Joshua Winsor’s House &c., Duxbury, Massachusetts ca. 1793–95.

American Folk Art Museum, gift of Ralph Esmerian

The exhibition also contextualizes images of towns in the North—primarily in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York—that include few, if any, Black figures in them by recognizing the influence of Black labor. For example, instead of simply including an 18th-century painting depicting the Massachusetts home of Joshua Winsor, a wealthy merchant and shipbuilder, the curators use it as an entry point to discuss how Black labor, even where slavery had receded, continued to be a defining feature in many areas throughout the Northeast. “I and other scholars have suggested New England should be thought of as a slave society because its entire economy was the triangle trade,” Gevalt said.

For the Perry Hall estate, “we are using it as an example to say to folks: ‘There are all of these absent figures, all of the enslaved Black people who were working this land, and actually creating this landscape,’” Gevalt said. An animating question that doubles as an organizing principle for the entire exhibition, she said, was “Why don’t we gravitate toward that story?”

A landscape painting showing rolling fields of a plantation. in the foreground are figures and dogs walking. In the background is a plantation house.

Francis Guy, Perry Hall from the East, Perry Hall, Maryland, ca. 1805.

Maryland Center for History and Culture, Baltimore

That small, almost peripheral image of Sib Hall served as the basis for the reconstruction of her genealogy, which is represented by a suite of portrait photographs of her descendants at the end of that section in the exhibition.

Black figures are more clearly displayed later on, mainly through portraiture, but also in sculpture and drawings. There is very little information available on the lives of these individuals, so the curators used materials—from account books and other records, like censuses and wills, to correspondence with enslavers—to sketch out biographies that, while speculative, are still substantial enough to serve as the basis for a new, more robust archive on Black heritage.

“That’s the only way we can proceed with telling these stories in an archive that is full of gaps,” Gevalt said. “The alternative is to just not tell the stories at all.”

Early depictions of Black Americans reflect dehumanizing tropes developed in 17th-century Europe that colonial settlers used to assert their worldliness.

A painting showing four white people with a Black person who is shown lower.

Unknown artist, John Potter and Family, Matunuck, Rhode Island, ca. 1740.

Newport Historical Society, Rhode Island

The images of Black figures in this section, titled “White Portraits, Black Lives,” have been so clearly manipulated to satisfy an agenda that has nothing to do with Black life that viewers could find it hard to imagine an alternate reality centered on it. In John Potter and Family (1740), a young Black boy is represented with a head cocked to one side and a sly smile, almost as comic relief next to the emotionless refinement of the Potter family, who Gevalt describes as prominent slaveholders in Rhode Island.

“This is from a pocket of Rhode Island where there were large plantations, but still very small in comparison to the South,” Gevalt noted. “In the North, though it was much more typical for a family to enslave one person, as many as 25 percent of households were enslaving, so that is still very significant.”

A needlework made with silk that lists a person's family tree with a house below and a decorative pattern on the border.

Sarah Ann Major Harris, Sampler, Norwich area, Connecticut, ca. 1826–28.

Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Delaware

Glimpses of racial agency are depicted through pieces like a needlework sampler by Sarah Ann Major Harris—a Black child who fought to integrate a girls’ boarding school in 19th-century Connecticut—that details her family history, or another of a house and garden by a free Black woman named Ann Plato, who made sure to sign her work. Other pieces that may appear to be pioneering, like a frontispiece depicting Black poet Phillis Wheatley writing at a desk (included in a section of Black makers) have been reexamined by the curators, along with a team of outside contributors, as examples of still narrowly-conceived portraits of Black life.

In that way, the most harrowing part of the show is seeing how often white people used Black figures—drawn from real people living in different eras, communities, and circumstances—as tokens to reinforce their own influence.

Portraits with central Black sitters emerged in the early to mid-19th century. Examples of Black portraiture, however, are still few and far between, perhaps because many Black people could not afford to commission them, as many have suggested. Gevalt has another idea. “I think oil on canvas was being treated as a white form,” she proposed.

A portrait of a white woman and her daughter the woman holds a white cotton cloth and the daughter holds a slice of watermelon.

Ammi Phillips, Rhoda Goodrich (Mrs. William Northrop) Bentley and Daughter, Lebanon Springs, New York, 1815–18.

Photo Gavin Ashworth/American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Bobbi and Ralph Terkowitz

In a section titled “Progress and Obstacles in Nineteenth Century Portraiture,” there are also two portraits of white sitters by Ammi Phillips, a portrait artist who worked for years in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, that include nods to Black labor through images of cotton and watermelon. In all that time, though, no one has discovered any painting by Phillips of a Black subject, including Agrippa Hull, an extremely prominent Massachusetts landowner whose portrait, rendered after his death by an unknown artist, is on view in the exhibition.

Following the gradual dismantling of slavery in the North before 1865, white Northerners began to feel uneasy with the shift in power dynamics. “White folks start saying, ‘Well, if slavery and Blackness are not intrinsically linked, can a white person become a slave?’,” Gevalt explained. This sentiment is evident in the series of drawings and other ephemera from the 19th century depicting Black figures as racist caricatures. This sentiment is evident in the series of drawings and other ephemera from the 19th century depicting Black figures as racist caricatures.

Even genuine attempts to represent the Black community with dignity miss the mark—especially by today’s standards. A doll depicting a free Black man who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was so crudely rendered that the show’s organizers wondered if it would be too triggering to include. “He’s not meant to represent a negative stereotype of Blackness, but yet his face obviously draws on all these negative stereotypes,” Gevalt said. After receiving permission from the family and the curatorial team’s own internal discussions, they decided to include it because they felt the doll “should be seen,” Gevalt added.

A cabinet card photograh showing a seated Black man (left) and a tintype showing a Black man in a suit and hat with a gold frame.

From left: J. F. Ortel, Seated Man Holding Document, Bel Air, Maryland, ca. 1878; Unknown artist, Prizefighter in Straw Hat, Northern United States, ca. 1885.

Burns Collection and Archive (2)

The final section of the show, titled “A More Perfect Likeness: Black Portrait Photography,” is a stunning display of Black figures, who have posed before the camera, long considered a medium of Black empowerment. After confronting up to this point how often images of Black life have been ignored or mishandled, stepping in front of this culminating tableau, with Black picture often pictured in stately dress and exhibiting a range of emotions, feels like sweet relief: seeing how Black people saw themselves.

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