Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 4, 2021
Sarah Thomas Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition London and New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2019. 304 pp.; 168 ills. (9781913107055)

John Simpson’s The Captive Slave (1827, Art Institute of Chicago) graces the cover of Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition, a compelling book that examines eyewitness accounts of slavery largely produced by British artists during the seventy-year period between 1770 and 1840. Although a poignant and absorbing image, Simpson’s painting is one of the few works in the book that is not an eyewitness account, but instead a formal portrait of an anonymous slave said to have been modeled by Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on the London stage. This paradox throws into relief the important differences between the academic painting tradition and travel illustration—a tension that Thomas delineates in this richly illustrated and well-researched volume. Although the paintings and illustrations differ in many ways, Thomas’s analysis reveals the constructed nature of both traditions. Witnessing Slavery is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on representations of slavery in general and Black bodies in particular, as well as the literature on European artist-travelers that seldom ventures into the vagaries of slavery and the “picturesque.”

The first chapter, “Testamentary Space,” provides a sweeping introduction that provides a thorough overview of the scope of the book, its underlying assumptions and themes. The major focus is the intersection between representations of slavery by traveling artists who were witnesses to one of the biggest crimes in human history and the discourses around slavery and abolition in Britain at that time. Thomas does not take the artworks at face value but instead raises questions about the “epistemological authority of images” (2). Were they irrefutable because they were witnessed? Thomas concludes that indeed these images were ideological in nature and never simply reportage. They were often contradictory, at once empirical and deeply personal, governed by an innate subjectivity. While the eyewitness account was considered a form of knowledge gathering, we now understand the complexities inherent in this enterprise. Representing slavery from firsthand accounts was fraught with inconsistencies and biases. The abject nature of the experiences of the enslaved that comprised so much of what was witnessed by these traveling artists—all white men—made it even more difficult to report. Thomas does a skilled job of discussing the various strategies that the artists employed in the impossible and political task of absorbing and reporting on what they witnessed. She also points out that both abolitionist and pro-slavery advocates utilized these firsthand accounts in their debates around slavery, manipulating the discourse to serve divergent ends. And the artists’ views on slavery were often ambivalent.

The five chapters following the introduction examine different slices of this story. Chapter 2 is an overview of abolitionist imagery and makes the case that visual culture was an important arm of the abolitionist project. Thomas points out that its goal was both to inform and to elicit compassion from the viewer. She discusses the notion of the sympathetic viewer as well as the phenomenon of Josiah Wedgewood’s imagery in Am I not a man . . . and a Brother (1787). She covers a wide swath of territory, from the ubiquitous and powerful slave ship icon to lesser-known illustrated books, satirical prints, and “high art” paintings not drawn from eyewitness accounts.

The remaining chapters focus on studies of individual artists, their varied experiences, and the milieus in which they witnessed the culture of slavery: Agostino Brunias in the British West Indies; John Gabriel Stedman in Suriname; James Hakewill in Jamaica; and Jean-Baptiste Debret, Augustus Earle, and Johann Moritz Rugendas in Brazil. The discussion of Brunias in chapter 3 follows work done by Beth Fowkes Tobin, Kay Dian Kriz, and Mia Bagneris. Thomas’s interpretation centers on how Brunias’s paintings reflect the amelioration project, or the British efforts to reform the brutal practices of plantation slavery. The appealing scenes were aimed at convincing Britons that the Caribbean was a place of “happy, healthy, and refined multi-racial society with ample provision, fine clothing and individual autonomy” (76). Thomas maintains that Brunias’s imagery “lacks any signs of brutality and coercion” (64). However, the predominance of mixed-raced slaves in his paintings is striking evidence of sexual coercion. Thomas does not allow for the possibility of, as Bagneris contends in her book Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias (Manchester University Press, 2018), the anxiety produced by works that were meant to shore up the boundaries of race but actually exposed the complex relationships between Blacks and whites, and the implications of the ambiguous racial categories celebrated in his works. Brunias’s view of the colonies, perhaps unintended, does more than present a sanitized view of the British Caribbean—it complicates conventional notions of slavery and freedom by subverting the idea of an idyllic slave society defined by stable categories of race.

Chapter 4 investigates the engravings of Surinam slaves made by William Blake after the drawings of the mercenary soldier John Gabriel Stedman. Although Stedman described in text and image the brutality of the Dutch slavery system in Surinam, Thomas makes the salient point that Stedman was not an abolitionist. Yet, according to Thomas, the engravings did much to shore up the abolitionist cause in England, despite a heavy-handed editor who attempted to slant the sentiment toward the pro-slavery argument. Thomas provides an astute analysis of the text and images and charts the ways in which they intersect and diverge. The author argues for more attention to Stedman’s sketches than has been previously afforded. She claims that to overlook Stedman’s role as an image maker—even though only one of the original sketches survives—is to disregard the significance of his point of view as an eyewitness. Thomas makes a convincing argument for Blake’s fidelity to Stedman’s images as sources for his engravings and puts them into the context of taxonomic and natural history illustration, as well as painting. Thomas intriguingly compares the shocking and dramatic engraving A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows of 1796 to Diego Velásquez’s canvas of Christ Crucified (Museo del Prado) of ca. 1632.

James Hakewill’s images of Jamaica are the focus of chapter 5. Thomas claims that, compared to Stedman’s graphic illustrations, Hakewill normalizes slavery by pulling back the viewpoint to present small-scale figures contentedly working the land. His carefully ordered scenes of plantations in structured landscapes efface the brutality of forced labor. She does a close reading of Hakewill’s illustrated travel book A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1825), a textual and visual chronicle of the plantation-scapes across the island, many of which were sugar estates where slaves actually experienced brutal labor practices. Thomas contends that by focusing on the topographical rather than the temporal Hakewill took an empirical position that prioritized elements that appeared less mutable, such as architecture and landscape. She goes on to discuss how the reproductions of his imagery were used in pro-slavery debates in the House of Lords and beyond.

Slavery as filtered through the daily life of urban Rio de Janeiro is chronicled in the works of Debret, Earle, and Rugendas, which are the focus of chapter 6. By far the most complex and interesting group of images in the book, the title of the chapter, “Slavery as Spectacle,” is an apt description. Rio’s large slave population and diverse bustling urban scene made for fascinating representations of slavery in the metropolis. Slave markets, laboring slaves, punishment, and leisure pursuits are frequent scenes. Compared to other works examined in this book that feature landscapes, these are densely populated scenes with narrative content concerned with slave bodies, clothing, different “types,” varied social strata, and interactions with whites and other enslaved Blacks. Images that were distributed as individual paintings and plates in books were popular in the British and French markets in an era when abolition was hotly debated. Thomas discusses an important cache of watercolors by the French painter Debret that were reproduced in the major publication Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil (1834–39), contextualizing the images with historical material and offering critical analysis.

One of the strong points of Witnessing Slavery is Thomas’s in-depth contextualization of images that we may have seen before in other publications examining representations of slavery, but that were not situated in their original trajectory as prints or book illustrations. Thomas has fleshed out biographies of traveling artists and the various circumstances of their sojourns. She has also provided important information on the publications in which these images originally circulated as well as their reception. Among the many threads that unite the works discussed, the issue of how the images operated within the discourse of abolition is an important through line that the author maintains and critically examines. In the ever-expanding field of inquiry since the launch of The Image of the Black in Western Art project in the 1960s, Witnessing Slavery takes on the problem of representing the un-representable—slavery—and deepens our understanding by focusing on eyewitness accounts and examining their complexities, contradictions, and revelations. 

Adrienne L. Childs
Independent Scholar