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“A Grand Panorama”: One Life Frederick Douglass Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery

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Frederick Douglass, the famous social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, never knew the year of his birth. This was common for Black Americans born enslaved. And it followed, long after his death, the earliest detail about one of the most influential figures in our history could not be known to us either. Today, among the more than thirty-five historic objects to be seen in One Life: Frederick Douglass, a new exhibit opening this Juneteenth holiday weekend at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, is a recovered ledger recording Douglass’ birth in February, 1818. 

When you visit the exhibition, the ledger is displayed open near the entrance to the gallery and is decidedly unsentimental, as it assumes its paradoxical place before the whole of an extraordinarily important collection. The ledger was discovered in 1980 by biographer, Dickson Preston and was kept by Aaron Anthony who managed the plantation of Edward Lloyd V, a US congressman, Maryland’s 13th governor, and Douglass’ first enslaver. 

Douglass had been told his father was white, and suspected it was Anthony or Anthony’s son-in-law, Thomas Auld. But, as he wrote in his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, “The means of knowing was withheld from me.” On the bottom of the left side page in Anthony’s ledger, Douglass’ mother is recorded briefly in an entry updating what was considered property: “Frederick Augustus, son of Harriet.” 

Though Douglass knew his mother’s full name was Harriet Bailey, he was only allowed to see her four or five times in his life and explains, “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant — before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.“

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, One Life: Frederick Douglass, curated by John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is the first Frederick Douglass exhibit the gallery has offered in decades and it is not only a must-see, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

According to consulting curator Ann Shumard, NPG’s senior curator of photographs, it offers significantly more than what could have come before this moment in time. Douglass, as a man, was continuously evolving, just as he fiercely advocated for societal evolution. On view until April 21, 2024, this exhibit reflects how our understanding of his legacy is ever moving forward as well. “History is never fully written,” says Shumard, “There is always another page.”

 

Aaron Anthony Ledger, 18th and 19th centuries, Bound ledger volume Book open: 32.4 × 40.6 × 2.2 cm (12 3/4 × 16 × 7/8") Mary A. Dodge Collection, Maryland State Archives
Frederick Douglass, E. W. Bouvé Lithography Co. Publisher: Henry Prentiss (born early 19th century) 1845 Lithograph on paper Image/Sheet: 33.1 × 24.6 cm (13 1/16 × 9 11/16") Image: 29.8 × 20 cm (11 3/4 × 7 7/8") National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Frederick Douglass, , 1856, Quarter-plate ambrotype, artist unknown
Frederick Douglass, Unidentified Artist, Reproduction of daguerreotype from c. 1850
Each photo is a brilliant work of art in its own way; seeing them together clarified for me the intimate relationship between Douglass, the photographer, and the camera.
John Stauffer

The gallery space feels stately and formal: marble floors and dark walls accented with a deep burgundy, like the case of a daguerreotype, opened. Four of the five earliest portraits of Douglass have been recovered for this exhibit and are all on display for the first time. Among them is the first known photograph of him: a daguerreotype taken in 1841—three years after he escaped from slavery and only one year after the first commercial daguerreotype studio opened in the US. 

In this photograph, Douglass literally and figuratively emerges out of darkness. The image is slightly fogged and tarnished due to the condition of the daguerreotype and there is a dusky charcoal gray background. Douglass is wearing a black suit and tie; his dark hair is parted and neatly shaped. The figurative emergence is in his eyes. As he looks directly at the camera, they are the most defined feature: cheerless and severe. Douglass is in his early twenties in this photograph, and by any century’s standard, a beautiful young man. But there is a mourning and a fury in his magnetism, one that demands reckoning from the viewer. 

“Although I had seen everything in the exhibition virtually, seeing the ‘real thing,’ the actual objects, was just breathtaking and exhilarating… Each photo is a brilliant work of art in its own way; seeing them together clarified for me the intimate relationship between Douglass, the photographer, and the camera,” Stauffer told me. “I knew he was selective in choosing who he sat for, but these four portraits captured his own aesthetic in a way I hadn’t appreciated—an aesthetic that continually revolved, much as Douglass continually evolved as an artist and activist.”

Daguerreotypes, named for their inventor Louis Jacques Daguerre, were often called “a mirror with a memory.” They are photos made on silver plated copper, and by that technology, cannot be copied or reproduced like modern photographs unless, Shumard explained to me, it is a daguerreotype of a daguerreotype (which is the case with only a minority on exhibition). It is awesome to understand that most of the early portraits of Douglass to be seen here were, at their creation, in the room with him and are the singular, roughly two-hundred-year-old originals of the images we are widely familiar with today.

Douglass has been recognized as the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, even more than Abraham Lincoln. This was strategic and intentional on his part. He embraced the new technology in a time when images of Black Americans were dominated by degrading caricatures considered comic. By stark contrast, in his portraits, Douglass dressed in a formal suit and tie. His posture and expression demanded not only his humanity, but his dignity and status as an intellectual leader. “He recognized in photography one of the most powerful weapons in destroying slavery and chipping away at racism,” says Stauffer.

It is startling how small and intimate these sixth plate daguerreotypes of Douglass are in comparison to that power and the legacy of these images, the influence of which would become tremendously public and far reaching. They are sized to be best seen by one person at a time. And their clasping cases, protecting the photo with glass and a pad of velvet or satin, are worn from more hands than I could possibly estimate. Though of course these rare and historic examples had to be protected in an exhibit case, I found it viscerally difficult not to be able to pick them up, one at a time, and experience holding the images more closely. This is what the objects call for—to be felt, opened, and truly seen. 

Frederick Douglass Unidentified Artist c. 1841 Sixth-plate daguerreotype Case open: 7.6 × 12.7 cm (3 × 5") Collection of Gregory French [TBC
Frederick Douglass, Unidentified Artist Reproduction of daguerreotype from c. 1850
Frederick Douglass with the Edmonson Sisters at Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York, Ezra Greenleaf Weld (26 Oct 1801 - 14 Oct 1874) 1850, Half-plate copy daguerreotype Image: 11.2 x 9.8 cm (4 7/16 x 3 7/8") Case Open: 15.2 x 24.4 x 1.3 cm (6 x 9 5/8 x 1/2") The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Set Charles Momjian
Frederick Douglass, Southworth & Hawes (active 1843 - 1862) c. 1845, Whole-plate daguerreotype Case open: 17.8 × 22.9 cm (7 × 9") Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, NY

“It’s hard to choose a single, favorite object in the exhibition,” Stauffer told me, “If I have to choose one, it’s the amazing whole-plate daguerreotype of Douglass by Southworth and Hawes. I had previously seen it only virtually.  It’s significant because whole-plate daguerreotypes are VERY rare, and it’s a young Douglass who is exploring different poses and his aesthetic… including his relationship with the camera, the photographer.” 

As Douglass matured, so did the innovation and accessibility of photography. When the daguerreotype fell out of popularity, photographs of him and other revolutionary figures in his circle such as Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and Abraham Lincoln appear in cartes de visite, salted paper prints, and albumen silver prints. In one of the carte-de-visite portraits on exhibit, taken in 1862 by John W. Hurn, Douglass is in his mid-forties and has grown his beard. His hair is streaked with gray, kinky and encompassing but neatly smoothed back. The fashion of his suit and tie are updated, and he looks, again, directly at the camera with an assuredness that leaves no option for a return to the past. 

“Rightly viewed,” Douglass wrote in a lecture he gave at Boston’s Tremont Temple in 1861, “the whole soul of a man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama, in which all the great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted.”

However, for one who lived much of his life before the practical and commercial presence of photography, “picture-making” went beyond the capturing of a still image for Douglass. “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers,” Douglass also said, in his 1861 lecture. “…and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction…”

Installation View of "One Life: Frederick Douglass" Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery
Installation View of "One Life: Frederick Douglass" Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery
Unidentified artist, after Carl Giers, Wood engraving, 1883 Harper’s Weekly cover, November 24, 1883
Frederick Douglass, John W. Hurn (active c. 1860) 1862, Carte-de-visite, Sheet: 10.2 × 7.6 cm (4 × 3") Collection of Gregory French

Douglass’ publications are presented in the exhibit much like the photographs, sized for two hands and left open in a protective case. Their proximity draws a striking parallel to how just as powerfully intimate, magnetic, and far reaching are Douglass’ words, both in his lifetime and beyond it.

Born enslaved in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass learned to read when he was brought to Baltimore. His new mistress began to teach him the alphabet, but was forbidden to continue by her husband. So Douglass enlisted the help of little white boys he met on the street—trading them bread for reading lessons. At the age of about twelve, he came across the Columbian Orator, a book of political essays, poems, and dialogues collected and written by Caleb Bingham

Douglass wrote of it, “Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave…. in the dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master—things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master… The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.”

In the nineteenth century, oration was a leading form of popular entertainment. And after escaping slavery, armed with the insights he had gained from his readings, Douglass excelled at public speaking with so much charisma and intellectualism that he was accused by some whites in his audience of lying about having been a slave. This fueled his understanding of representation and the necessity of truth telling. He would go on to give more public speeches and to a wider audience than any other American of his time.  

Included among the books presented in the exhibit are a first edition pamphlet of his oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”— likely Douglass’ best known speech, along with rare editions of two of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself and My Bondage and My Freedom. The latter book Stauffer describes as the greatest intellectual biography in the US.

My Bondage and My Freedom FD06 Author: Frederick Douglass (Feb 1818 - 20 Feb 1895) 1855, Book open: 19.7 × 25.4 × 3.2 cm (7 3/4 × 10 × 1 1/4") Collection of John Stauffer
Letter from Douglass to Lincoln (page 1) Author: Frederick Douglass (Feb 1818 - 20 Feb 1895) August 29, 1864. Ink on paper Sheet: 24.8 × 19.7 cm (9 3/4 × 7 3/4") Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Abraham Lincoln, Mathew B. Brady (1823? - 15 Jan 1896) 1864, Albumen silver print Image: 8.3 × 5.4 cm (3 1/4 × 2 1/8") Sheet: 10.2 × 6.2 cm (4 × 2 7/16") National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Another striking piece of Douglass’ writing included in the exhibition is a letter he composed to President Lincoln whom he advised and befriended during the Civil War. After Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation of slavery in 1863, which called for enlisting Black men into the Union Army, Douglass became a major recruiter.

He had long argued that the war couldn’t be won without them. As described by NPG, this letter dated August 29, 1864, includes Douglass’ proposal to Lincoln calling for a general agent (probably himself as a commissioned officer) and sub-agents to conduct “squads of slaves” northward. Douglass also encouraged collaboration between Union generals and sub-agents, and requested food and shelter for freedmen involved in the scheme. Four days later, the Union army took Atlanta, greatly improving the chances of Lincoln’s reelection.

History remembers Douglass as an abolitionist, intellectual, and statesman but the NPG exhibit reminds us he was, every step of the way, an artist too. Douglass’ use of photography, writing, and oration all relied on the radical courage he had in revealing his humanity before those who, if doubtful at first, had the precious opportunity to really see him through these mediums. The result helped bring about seismic progress at a dark and pivotal time in US history. 

Revisiting Douglass’ life requires looking forward as well as back, especially as we celebrate Juneteenth in 2023. Today eighty “educational gag order” bills that would restrict public education in the instruction of slavery, race, sexual orientation and gender diversity are pending in twenty four states. The language of many of these proposals could lead to the erasure of Douglass’ story and those of so many more. But this isn’t new; US public school curriculums have long obscured what I would call the fullest colors of history.

I commend NPG’s curatorial mission and research for this exhibit that so intimately and memorably delivers just that. Cultural and art institutions are, for many Americans, the surest access we have to uncensored truths of what, and who has shaped our world. In this way, they can serve as a beacon to us all. That is, if we accept the invitation. As Douglass himself mused: “By the cultivation of his intellect, by the development of his natural resources, by understanding the science of his own relations to the world, man has the marvelous power of enlarging the boundaries of his own existence.”

 

Men of Color to Arms, Unidentified artist, Printed broadside, 1863 The Library Company of Philadelphia
Eva Webster Russell (1856–1914), Reproduction of charcoal drawing from 1877 Courtesy of the National Park Service, Museum Management Program and Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith
Installation View of "One Life: Frederick Douglass" Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery
Installation View of "One Life: Frederick Douglass" Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery
Frederick Douglass Unidentified Artist, Former attribution: Elisha Livermore Hammond (1779 - 1882) / c. 1845, Oil on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Unidentified photographer, Salted paper print, c. 1860 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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