Chicago Art Institute Pays $185,000 for Douglass Portrait

By Westerbeck, Colin | Ebony, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Chicago Art Institute Pays $185,000 for Douglass Portrait


Westerbeck, Colin, Ebony


Frederick Douglas 1817*-1895), one of the greatest figures of the 19th century, was a leader of the Antislavery Movement and a founding father of the African-American protest movement. After escaping from slavery, Douglass educated himself and became one of the greatest speakers and thinkers of the age.

On February 14 (the 180th anniversary of the birth date he gave himself), The Art Institute of Chicago, one of America's major cultural institutions, will announce that it has acquired, at a record auction price of $185,000, a unique, and previously unknown, daguerreotype of Douglass. The daguerreotype (presented here for the first time) will be featured in an important exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 1997, and is now part of the institution's permanent collection. The exhibition is entitled In Their Own Right: Images of African-Americans in The Art Institute of Chicago Collection.

The passion and determination in Douglass' face can be explained, in part, by the passion and turbulence of one of the most threatening and explosive decades in American history. During this decade (the 1850s), Douglass announced his independence from the William Lloyd Garrison wing of the Abolitionist Movement and soared to great heights as a leader of the fight against the infamous Fugitive Slave Law, which nationalized slavery and threatened the life and liberty of every Black, slave and free. If, as has been suggested, the portrait was made in 1852, it captures one of the most electrifying periods in Douglass' life. It was on July 5, 1852, that Douglass delivered his famous address on the meaning, or lack of meaning, of the Fourth of July to African-American slaves. Anybody who knows the fury and eloquence of that memorable speech will recognize in this portrait its author.

The story of how this priceless image was acquired is related (on Page 34) by Colin Westerbeck, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute.

Ironically, last year when the National Portrait Gallery did its pictorial biography of Frederick Douglass entitled Majestic in His Wrath, the existence of this image was unknown. Never did Douglass reveal the wrath he felt as an escaped slave more powerfully than here. In other daguerreotypes and photographic prints already familiar, he more typically projects a statesmanlike image suggesting his effort to transcend the anguish of his early life. Only in this one does the full story of enslavement and escape, of two years spent in England while the price of his freedom was raised and of return to engage the abolitionist cause, seem to show in his face.

Research suggests that the more likely date for this portrait is 1852 when Douglass was on a speaking tour in the vicinity of Akron, Ohio, where Samuel J. Miller had his daguerrean studio. If so, the expression on the subject's face (the brows knitted in perplexity or perhaps even exasperation, the moral sternness, the rectitude) is doubly provocative. …

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Chicago Art Institute Pays $185,000 for Douglass Portrait
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