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September 07, 2023

National Gallery of Art Acquires the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection of 19th- and early 20th-Century American Photographs

American 19th Century, "Portrait of a Man"

American 19th Century
Portrait of a Man, c. 1855
daguerreotype with applied color
image (visible): 7 x 5.7 cm (2 3/4 x 2 1/4 in.)
mat: 8 x 7 cm (3 1/8 x 2 3/4 in.)
case (closed): 9.5 x 8.3 x 1.6 cm (3 3/4 x 3 1/4 x 5/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection, Purchased with support from the Ford Foundation

Washington, DC—The National Gallery of Art has acquired the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection, one of the most important holdings of 19th- and early 20th-century American vernacular photographs, purchased with support from the Ford Foundation. Formed over 50 years, it includes 248 photographs of and by African Americans made from the 1840s through the early 20th century that provide compelling insights into the forces that have helped shape modern America and the lives of everyday people. The collection will be featured as part of the National Gallery’s commemoration in 2026 of the 250th anniversary of the nation’s founding, presenting an opportunity to reflect on our past as depicted and lived by artists and look to the future.

“The exceptional photographs in the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, “include images by celebrated early Black photographers and powerful depictions of African Americans—some renowned, some unknown—that expand the story of 19th and early 20th century American photographic portraiture.”

“As a young social studies teacher in the Baltimore County public schools some 50 years ago, Ross Kelbaugh recognized that he could use photographs as a springboard for learning in his classroom,” said Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery. “He knew that the numerous photographs of African Americans that he discovered as he built his collection—pictures that were largely overlooked by other collectors at the time—could engage his racially diverse students, allowing them to see that everyone’s past, as he has written, ‘is an integral part of this nation’s story of E pluribus unum, out of many, one.’”

“After decades of collecting adventures, I am honored to have this portion of my photographic treasures now join the National Gallery of Art, where they can be studied and appreciated by everyone. These photographers and the people preserved in their photographs can finally become a permanent part of the American memory,” said Ross J. Kelbaugh.

The Kelbaugh collection includes 11 rare photographs by the three most celebrated early Black photographers: James Presley Ball (1825–1905), Glenalvin Goodridge (1829–1867), and Augustus Washington (1820/1821–1875). Ball was a freeman born in Frederick County, Virginia, who learned photography at an early age. By 24, he had opened Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West in Cincinnati, where he became an award-winning artist, internationally celebrated for his portraits of well-known white individuals, such as Jenny Lind, and African Americans, including Frederick Douglass. He also employed the African American painter Robert Seldon Duncanson to hand color and retouch photographs. Goodridge was the son of a formerly enslaved man turned entrepreneur whose home in York, Pennsylvania, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Goodridge opened a daguerrean studio there in 1847, which prospered until 1862 when he was falsely convicted of a crime and sentenced to five years in prison; he was subsequently pardoned by the governor. Washington, the son of a freeman and an Asian woman, learned how to make daguerreotypes while he was a student at Dartmouth College. He set up a daguerrean studio in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1846 where he photographed both Black and white clients. He ran the studio until 1854, when he emigrated to Liberia to avoid discrimination and enjoy equal rights.

“With their compelling stories, these three men represent important examples of Black entrepreneurship and the struggle for equality and justice in the years before and after Emancipation,” said Diane Waggoner, curator of photographs at the National Gallery.

The Kelbaugh collection contains many pictures of African Americans—several were made without the consent of their subjects, often to support white concepts of family, wealth, and status. Among these images are disquieting photographs of African American women shown attentively caring for their white charges while they were denied the ability to form their own stable family units. In one haunting picture of two young African American girls holding hands, a label pasted on the front states “Peculiar Institution”—the euphemism used by John C. Calhoun and other defenders of slavery in the South. Other images were taken to aid abolitionist causes and sold to support the education of newly freed people; for example, the carte de visite entitled Wilson Chinn, a Branded Slave from Louisiana depicts a man wearing a spiked neck collar, ankle chains, and an iron leg brace. While the purpose of other photographs is not known, the picture of two men—one Black, one white—holding hands could reflect the widely embraced abolitionist slogan “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”

Most of the pictures in the Kelbaugh collection were made to bear witness to Black pride and accomplishment. Although the identity of several of the people depicted is unknown, their elegant clothing and determined, self-confident expressions suggest that they were freemen and freewomen eager to record their prosperity. Many were made to ensure that history remembered their subjects, such as the tintype with color applied by an unknown artist that included a slip of paper inscribed “Annie/Remember Me.” Several images celebrate acts that were previously denied to African Americans. For example, an unknown Civil War soldier paid extra for the photographer to highlight with gold not only his ring, brass buttons, and belt buckle, but also his knife and revolver, which he, like other African Americans, had previously been prohibited from possessing. After Emancipation, in an important rebuttal to the practice of depicting enslaved women with white children, some prosperous African American women had themselves recorded with their own children, while others had their children depicted carrying haversacks, as if on their way to school, another right previously denied to African Americans. Still others depicted themselves with books, proudly projecting an air of defiance.

The Kelbaugh collection also includes photographs of celebrated African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (whose courage and resilience inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of the hero in her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Several pictures directly address the history of enslavement, such as depictions of the “Slave Pen” in Alexandria, Virginia (1861); enslaved people on Edisto Island (1862); and recently freed enslaved people on the Bullard Plantation, Louisiana (1864). Other pictures address Reconstruction, such as one of an African American cowboy and images from the Jim Crow era. The collection extends into the 20th century, with compelling portraits of distinguished African American members of the Knights of Pythias and World War I and II soldiers.

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