Leif Eckstrom & Britt Rusert
From our Brooklyn Correspondent.
And now, good gentle folks,
Ethiop’s again among ye, taking notes.
—Frederick Douglass’ Paper, December 11, 1851
EDITOR:—If my picture has its shades, it also has its lights: indeed there are some bright spots, brighter than I can paint them.
—Frederick Douglass’ Paper, January 8, 1852
In a letter published in the March 11, 1853 issue of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, the Brooklyn schoolteacher and activist William J. Wilson, writing under the pseudonym “Ethiop,” described his visit to two art galleries in New York City. Lamenting the glaring absence of “distinguished black” figures in the galleries, and in American visual culture more broadly, Wilson concluded, “we must begin to tell our own story, write our own lecture, paint our own picture, chisel our own bust.” A few years later, Wilson answered his own call with the publication of his “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” Responding not only to the absence of black art and printed images in antebellum culture, but also to the mass circulation of degrading images of African Americans, from the minstrel stage to the printed page, Wilson’s gallery turned to the burgeoning U.S. print sphere—and a growing black periodical industry—to provide an alternative visual archive of black America, a visual archive wrought in textual form.
In 1859, the “Picture Gallery” appeared in seven installments in the Anglo-African Magazine, the preeminent black monthly of the antebellum period. Edited by the African American printer and bookseller, Thomas Hamilton, the Anglo-African Magazine was a wide-ranging intellectual magazine written by and for African Americans in New York and across the Northeast. In the Picture Gallery, Wilson’s nom de plume is transformed into a full-fledged literary character as Ethiop takes readers through a virtual tour of a completely imagined gallery of art comprising sketches, paintings, and works of sculpture that represent black life in the United States and across the diaspora. In addition to distinguished portraits and busts of notable people of African descent, including Phillis Wheatley, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Ira Aldridge, Ethiop describes African landscapes, scenes of slavery and the slave trade, and other pertinent subjects. Drawing from real-world sources in the print sphere and the art world, as well as works wholly imagined by Wilson, the Picture Gallery imagines not only what the first gallery of black art in the United States might look like, but also how a black and white public might respond to the gallery and its holdings.
Perhaps one of the most surprising, if not vexing aspects of the Picture Gallery is that it circulated without actual pictures. In addition to motivating the urgency and power of the series, the striking absence of illustrations speaks to a number of important material realities that Wilson and the Anglo-African faced. As Wilson had made clear in his March 1853 letter to Douglass, fine art relating to black life and culture was rare, if not a functionally absent category in the antebellum United States. We might infer, then, that Wilson’s series sought to overcome the scarcity of black art and images by inspiring and stimulating its future conception, production, and circulation through the magazine’s print format. On a more practical level, an illustrated Picture Gallery likely would have been cost prohibitive for the Anglo-African. While the lithographic reproduction of fine art images in periodical formats had become increasingly sophisticated and cheaper by 1859, lithographs were an expense that few antebellum magazines could absorb on a frequent basis. Indeed, most periodicals operated on the thinnest of margins already since every aspect of periodical production and distribution was fraught with costs that held little chance of being recouped by subscription fees.[i] The stunted runs of many early African American periodicals, including the Anglo-African Magazine itself, are a testament to the even scarcer resources with which black editors and printers worked. Despite such prohibitions on image production, Thomas Hamilton reproduced two images in the Anglo-African Magazine: a portrait of Alexander Dumas appeared in 1859 and one of Ira Aldridge was published in 1860.[ii] Visual embellishments like these celebrated forgotten or unsung literary and cultural heroes of African descent, but they also represented the Anglo-African Magazine’s claim to being a publication of record and distinction.
While these material constraints emphasize the structural and economic impediments to black image production and circulation in the 1850s, Wilson’s deft and inventive use of a number of literary genres and modes suggest an alternate economy at hand in the Picture Gallery, one of plentitude, not scarcity, and one that grew out of the spirited, experimental, and highly literary sketches that Wilson developed as the Brooklyn correspondent to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In other words, the ambitious survey of black life and history that Wilson represents in his gallery was amplified by an equally ambitious relation to the rich and varied genres that Wilson used to craft his text. Much like his contributions to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery” takes its normative form from the periodical genre of the urban sketch, which mixed documentary-style observations of city life with fictional conceits and points of view that stylized both the writer’s and readers’ relation to contemporary urban culture.[iii] The initial installments of the Picture Gallery narrate Ethiop’s discovery of this “almost unknown Gallery” in the normative sketch vein, giving order to the gallery’s holdings through studied descriptions written in alternately ekphrastic and historiographic modes. The serial quickly expands upon these generic registers, however, to include gothic reappraisals of revolutionary haunts like Mt. Vernon in the second installment, to explore the counterfactual terrain of the Black Forest through the tropes and conventions of the fairy tale in the third and fourth installments, to turn self-reflexive about the gallery’s public in the fifth and sixth installments, and to conclude, provisionally perhaps, with a fugitive slave narrative from the “early days of the underground railroad” in the seventh installment. We should recognize, then, in Wilson’s ambitious expansion of the generic modes that his sketch accommodates, a call for equally capacious readings of his gallery space, its holdings, and its public(s).
But “sketch” held at least two meanings for Wilson, as it did for fellow Anglo-African Magazine contributor James McCune Smith: it referred to the periodical genre with which both Wilson and Smith experimented, but also to the act of making portrait sketches, or visual descriptions of human subjects in writing. Just as Smith used “word paintings” to delineate the visual features and internal character of New York’s black workers in his “Heads of the Colored People” series, Wilson’s Picture Gallery includes several portrait sketches.[iv] Such a provisional form of portraiture, “outline portraits” as Wilson called them, did not necessarily require or desire actual illustration since they were intended to hail a radical black futurity that antebellum readers and writers might describe but not quite glimpse.[v]
This “not-yet” quality of the series also situates the Picture Gallery within the elusive history of African American art in the nineteenth century. By the middle of the century, a handful of professional black artists had emerged in the United States, including Robert Douglass, Jr., Mary Edmonia Lewis, Robert S. Duncanson, and Edward Mitchell Bannister, while a few others, like Patrick H. Reason, worked in the print and engraving trades. Both William Wells Brown and Henry Box Brown created and exhibited panoramas that matched the ambition and imaginative vision of Wilson’s textual gallery. The Picture Gallery registers the activity of practicing black artists in the antebellum period, but also uses the figure of Bernice—a black artist working in exile somewhere in the Black Forest—to reflect on the social and economic conditions as well as the institutional politics that frequently frustrated artistic activity among African Americans.
The liveliness and satiric nature of Wilson’s prose is sure to engage students as will the ekphrastic nature of the series. Wilson’s creation of a protected space of black art for black patrons raises important questions about the nature of an emerging black public sphere in the antebellum North, while illuminating the history of institution-building among free black communities in places like Brooklyn, and New York City, more generally. Given the multi-faceted and multi-layered nature of the Picture Gallery, we encourage instructors to lead discussions and design assignments that will encourage students to begin excavating the many levels of this text—from its visual antecedents, referents, and source materials, to its reflexive perspective on black culture, thought, and media as it circulated through a nominally free nation post-Dred Scott and with war on the wind in the signal event of John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. Given the literariness of Wilson’s text and its connection to a number of emerging scholarly interests, from early African American art and visual culture to the antebellum print sphere and black publics and counterpublics, Wilson’s Picture Gallery is poised for a renaissance, in the classroom and beyond.
[i] According to Georgia B. Barnhill, the costs and sales figures for lithographic image production are little known and difficult to align with present values of the dollar; nevertheless the business records of Daniel W. Kellogg’s large-scale lithography firm in Hartford, Connecticut, indicate a wholesale price of “4 cents each” per impression in the 1850s. For a magazine like The Anglo-African, which began without surplus capital and charged two dollars per year for a subscription, the minimum wholesale cost of about four cents per impression, or magazine copy, would have been relatively expensive. See Barnhill, “Business Practices of Commercial Nineteenth-Century American Lithographers,” Winterthur Portfolio 48.2/3 (2014): 213, 217, and 227. See also, Erika Piola, “The Rise of Early American Lithography and Antebellum Visual Culture,” Winterthur Portfolio 48.2/3 (2014): 125-138. For more on the “peculiarly mixed” process of lithography, which was able to fuse “handwork and presswork, a visual technology with a textual one,” see Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of Nation Building, 1770-1870 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 355.
[ii] Links to these images are available on the JTO:EAAP website.
[iii] The nineteenth-century French periodical form, the fuilleton, is another generic touchstone for Wilson’s urban sketches, and one explicitly employed in the columns of the bohemian New York Saturday Press, a contemporary literary weekly, whose editorial office was one block from that of the Anglo-African.
[iv] James McCune Smith, who wrote under the pseudonym “Communipaw” and frequently sparred with Wilson’s “Ethiop” in the correspondence section of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, published his biographical sketch serial, “Heads of the Colored People” in Frederick Douglass’ Paper between 1852-54. Nearly every installment of “Heads” takes a passing thrust at Ethiop.
[v] For the early portrait sketch from which this quote is taken, see William J. Wilson, “A Leaf from My Scrapbook,” [dated May, 1849] from Julia Griffiths, Ed., Autographs for Freedom, Volume II (Auburn, NY: Alden, Beardsley & Co., 1854), 165-173.
Published works that consider William J. Wilson and the Anglo-African Magazine include John Ernest, Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861 (Chapel Hill, 2004); Ivy Wilson, Specters of Democracy: Blackness and the Aesthetics of Politics in the Antebellum U.S. (New York, 2011); Ivy Wilson, “The Brief Wondrous Life of the Anglo-African Magazine; or, Antebellum African American Editorial Practice and Its Afterlives,” Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race Since 1850, ed. George Hutchinson and John K. Young (Ann Arbor, 2013), 18-38. On the primacy of visual logic and rhetoric within anti-slavery media campaigns and ephemera, see Radiclani Clytus, “‘Keep It Before the People’: The Pictorialization of American Abolitionism,” Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein (Philadelphia, 2012), 290-317. On African Americans in early New York City, see Leslie Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (Chicago, 2003); Carla Peterson, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (New Haven, 2011). On African Americans in art and photography in the nineteenth-century, and on early black visual artists and photographers in the U.S., see Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America (Washington, DC, 1985); Lisa Farrington, Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists (New York, 2005); Gwendolyn Du Bois Shaw, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century (Seattle, 2006); Kirsten Pai Buick, Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham, N.C., 2010); Barbara Krauthamer and Deborah Willis, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Philadelphia, 2012); Maurice Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, eds., Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham, N.C., 2012); Marcy Dinius, The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype (Philadelphia, 2012); Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York, 2015).
Reflections / Teaching Guides
- Lara Cohen Teaching Reflection
- Benjamin Fagan Teaching Reflection
- Britt Rusert Lesson Plan
- Ben Fagan Teaching Reflection
- Bryan Sinche Teaching Reflection
- Lisa West Teaching Reflection
- On Teaching William J. Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery”
- Pursuit of Freedom: The Anti-Slavery Movement in Brooklyn http://pursuitoffreedom.org
- William J. Wilson’s biographical entry at http://pursuitoffreedom.org/abolitionist-biographies/
- Visualizing 19th-Century New York
- Colored Conventions: Bringing Nineteenth-century Black Organizing to Digital Life
- Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection https://www.nyhistory.org/web/africanfreeschool/
- William Wells Brown, The Black Man (1863)
- William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855)
Page images of all seven installments of the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” from the Anglo-African Magazine (1859).
Dimensional photograph of the Anglo-African Magazine
Anglo-African Magazine (August 1859), p. 246; page image showing sideways “m” on bottom of page
Alexandre Dumas (Vol. I, no. 1, January 1859)
Ira Aldridge (Vol. II, no. 1, January 1860).
Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: Printed for A. Bell, 1773).
Cover of Bickerstaff’s Boston almanac, for the year of our redemption, 1782 (Boston: Printed by E. Russell, 1782)
Frontispiece to Benjamin Bussey Thatcher, Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, a North African and a Slave (Boston: George W. Light; New York: Moore and Payne, and Leavitt, Lord and Co., 1834).
Phillis Wheatley, in A. D. Jones, The Illustrated American Biography, vol. III (New York: J. Milton Emerson & Co., 1855), 147.
- First Issue of Freedom’s Journal, March 16, 1827, VOL. I., NO. I., page 1, “To Our Patrons”
- Anglo-African Magazine, January 1859, “Apology,” Thomas Hamilton’s introductory editorial statement, 1-4.
- Ethiop correspondence in Frederick Douglass’ Paper (Rochester, NY, March 11, 1853). Image provided by Accessible Archives, Inc. online databases.
- “Mr. Wilson’s Explanation” in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (July 8, 1863), available at http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/50410254/?terms=.
- The map included in this essay by R.J. Weir and Elizabeth Lorang shows lower Manhattan in 1862, with Beekman Street and Printing House Square highlighted in orange. The orange square on Beekman Street identifies the location of 48 Beekman Street, Thomas Hamilton’s editorial office and bookshop.