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    Members’ Reports

    Rachel Stephens
    Center 41

    Rachel Stephens

    Hidden in Plain Sight: Slavery and Concealment in Antebellum American Art 

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    Unknown photographer, African American woman holding a white child, c. 1855, hand-tinted ambrotype, Library of Congress

    My book manuscript analyzes a range of depictions of enslaved people from the antebellum period, addressing the multifarious ways that supporters of enslavement applied art in justifying their beliefs. A variety of examples of antebellum art reflected the rhetoric of pro-slavery apologists by representing enslaved people in an optimistic light, and they also worked to undermine abolitionists’ powerful use of visual culture. The works of apologists reflect trends broadly categorized as concealment, which I organized into a series of subthemes, including physical concealment, idealization, secrecy, and destruction. In idealizing slavery and thereby concealing the horrific aspects of the institution, some of these best-known works offer a rosy romanticism. Literal methods of concealment were undertaken in some cases, and strict secrecy was maintained in the creation of other works. Anger toward abolitionists resulted in outright destruction (of artworks, of structures, and ultimately of bodies) in extreme cases. Suspicion regarding slavery at nearly every turn led to cover-up and this manifested in disparate ways. My research explores these little-acknowledged trends within slavery-related art; drawing from a range of media, this project addresses art history’s covert implication in support of slavery.  

    The artists addressed in this project did not experience the hardship of slavery themselves. Rather, they illustrated their understanding of it to suit their beliefs or purposes—or more likely, those of their patrons. However, works and actions such as these mediate our view of slavery today. My goal therefore is not to probe the difficulties of slavery, but rather to locate and acknowledge how a visual culture of cover-up affected the coeval political climate and continues to cloud our view of the past.  

    Although antebellum artwork often marginalized them, I strive to put enslaved individuals at the center of this project. Because the institution of slavery attempted to strip away their humanity, using artistic resources (especially those made during the antebellum period and often by their oppressors) to recover human lives and experiences proves problematic. Abolitionist art tended to stunt enslaved people’s agency by focusing on the violence enacted upon them. Pro-slavery art is, by contrast, almost always a farce. Despite this, I continue to work to locate the buried individual through various research means, which often involves reading between the lines (or brushstrokes), parsing the words of enslavers, and embracing unknowns. I also draw parallels between the cover-up of slavery’s realities and the attempted suppression of enslaved people’s humanity, while also celebrating enslaved people’s own, often concealed, culture and humanity. 

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    William D. Washington (1831–1870), The Burial of Latané, 1864, oil on canvas, The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, SC

    Collectively, pro-slavery artworks represent one aspect of the backlash against the visual culture of anti-slavery activism, reflecting the contradictory nature of slavery apologist culture. Runaway advertisements for fugitive enslaved people were ubiquitous, yet supporters of enslavement publicly ignored these acts of resistance, choosing instead to illustrate slavery in a range of optimistic ways. Pro-slavery rhetoric and artwork attempted to conceal the violence of slavery, instead photographing enslaved women in maternal guises, or representing enslaved men as “loyal” workers. Thus, the institution was usually represented as a natural aspect of Southern living and even a mutually beneficial enterprise. Plantation scenes celebrated the planter’s splendid home and grounds and covered over the violent roots of that physical beauty. 

    Despite a profusion of interest in the history of the antebellum South, little attention has been given to the arts of the region, particularly those produced in support of slavery. I seek to place the artwork of the antebellum plantation at the center of a mobilized force of justification, cover-up, and public silence regarding slavery in the antebellum period. Although these images are painful and misguided, their concealment for generations has resulted in apathy. Studying these artworks allows for a more critical consideration of the role of visual art within national discussions regarding race, enslavement, and American history.  

    My time at the Center came at the end of drafting my book manuscript and allowed me to bring a focused conclusion to my writing using its vast library resources, collegial support, and quiet work space. At the end of my fellowship, I submitted my manuscript for consideration at the University of Arkansas Press, where it is currently undergoing peer review. 

    The University of Alabama 
    Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, fall 2020

    Rachel Stephens will serve as a long-term fellow at Virginia Humanities during the fall of 2021, where she will initiate research on her next book project regarding the art of white supremacy in post–Civil War Virginia, before returning to her position as associate professor of art history, American art, and architecture at the University of Alabama.