"Yale Center for British Art: Images of Eighteenth-Century British Slavery"

By Caruso, Hwa Young; Caruso, John, Jr. | International Journal of Multicultural Education, July 2014 | Go to article overview

"Yale Center for British Art: Images of Eighteenth-Century British Slavery"


Caruso, Hwa Young, Caruso, John, Jr., International Journal of Multicultural Education


From October 2 to December 14, 2014, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT, displayed more than 60 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and decorative objects, some on loan from other collections, in an exhibition entitled Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain. The educational exhibition focused on the impact of slavery, Britain's expanded involvement in the slave trade, and depictions of enslaved Africans and Black servants in 18th century British family portraits.

The three-month exhibition was organized by the Yale Center for British Art and curated by Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer, Ph.D. candidates in the Department of the History of Art at Yale, and Cyra Levenson, Associate Curator of Education at the Yale Center. Extensive research, much of it based on original documents, was integrated into the exhibition and linked to the Center's website. The supplemental materials included a 45-page monographic guide, 14 audio interviews with art critics about individual works, an annotated historical time line from 1555-1833, and 38 high-definition digital photos of the art works and other materials.

The historical provenance of the artworks is critical to understanding the nuances of a leveraged social scale that placed unknown Blacks as sitters representing enslaved Africans who, regarded as possessions, were ranked materially above domesticated animals and household pets. These works reflect an acceptance of a genteel racial hierarchy.

The Blacks depicted in the works are primarily young males between the ages of 12 and 18 years. They composed the largest segment of the estimated 15,000 slaves in 18th-century England. They are attired in expensive, stylish, tailored finery confirming the wealth of their masters who could possess and outfit a household slave or an indentured servant. Their orientalized appearances with turbans are so resplendent that the paintings reinforce the myth of the joyful and materially comfortable life of a slave comparable to a person of standing in English society. The slaves' smiling faces beaming with childlike adoration of their White superiors confirm that they are well treated and regarded as fortunate to be enslaved servants of benevolent owners. These enslaved servants were spared from the harsh short lives of most slaves who labored from dawn to dusk as beasts of burden in the tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar cane fields of the Caribbean. Confirmation of their status as enslaved servants versus employed servants is difficult to ascertain. The exceptions are those images in which servants are wearing slave's collars made of iron or silver or documentation identifies their status, not their individual identities or owners.

Great Britain in the 18th century expanded a colonial empire to rival the acquisitions accumulated by Spain, Portugal, and Holland for the previous 200 years. The commercial benefit of establishing secular corporations in the Age of Reason, when all social institutions had religious affiliations, was a monumental achievement. Visitors may recall that the first English entry into the new world, the Jamestown Settlement, was funded by a rudimentary investment corporation (Virginia Company 1606) under the protection of a royal charter. Exploration was intended to systematically exploit another region and return the material spoils and profits to the motherland. The 13 American Colonies proved to be a costly venture to the Empire, however, as the Crown had to fight extended wars with the French, Spanish, indigenous tribal nations, and finally America in a massive revolutionary war between 1776 and 1783.

The British, as the result of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, were given a monopoly over the slave trade to Spanish colonies. This concession produced immense wealth and resulted in the British having direct contact with enslaved Africans who, in small numbers, were sold as prized possessions in London, Liverpool, and Bristol, the slave trade centers of an emerging global Empire. …

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