Exhibition | Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture

Posted in exhibitions by Mattie Koppendrayer on August 1, 2014


Artist unknown, Elihu Yale, the 2nd Duke of Devonshire, Lord James Cavendish, Mr. Tunstal, and an Enslaved Servant, ca. 1708, oil on canvas (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, Gift of the 11th Duke of Devonshire)

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Press release from the YCBA:

Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2 October 2014 — 14 December 2014

Curated by Esther Chadwick, Meredith Gamer, and Cyra Levenson

This October, the Yale Center for British Art will shed new
light on representations of slavery in Britain through more than sixty paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and decorative objects. Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain will examine the ways in which portraiture reflected the perceptions, attitudes, and contradictions of slavery at the time.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington, 1782 (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art)

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington, 1782 (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art)

The rise of the British Empire during the eighteenth century, fueled by enslaved labor on plantations in the Caribbean and the mainland of North America, contributed to a period of economic and cultural growth. It also brought unprecedented numbers of Africans and people of African descent, both enslaved and free, to Britain. Figures of Empire explores the impact of these developments on the most popular artistic genre of the time: the portrait.

In eighteenth-century Britain, portraits were a principal means of self- representation. Sitters conveyed information about themselves in a variety of ways—through clothing, setting, props, and, often, in relation to subordinate figures, such as servants or slaves. In many cases, these figures were modeled after life; however, in the eighteenth century, they were rarely regarded as subjects in their own right. By contrast, this exhibition challenges us to consider all of the figures depicted within a given portrait as individuals with histories and as ‘figures of empire’—as people whose lives were shaped by British imperialism and the institution of transatlantic slavery. Figures of Empire asks us to think again about what exactly a portrait is and how the answer to this question might change over time.

tudio of Francis Harwood, Bust of a Man, ca. 1758, black limestone on yellow marble socle, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection;

Studio of Francis Harwood, Bust of a Man, ca. 1758, black limestone on yellow marble socle (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

The exhibition opens with a selection of early eighteenth-century portraits, maps, and sculptures that trace Britain’s expanding commercial empire and engagement with the institution of transatlantic slavery. Anchoring this display is an important and rarely exhibited group portrait that includes Elihu Yale, the founding benefactor of Yale University, along with an enslaved servant. The next section focuses on the role and representation of slavery in a number of mid-century portraits and conversation pieces, including William Hogarth’s Portrait of a Family (ca. 1735) and Francis Harwood’s remarkable sculpted Bust of a Man (1758). The exhibition continues with an exploration of imagery produced within the context of abolitionism later in the century, examining the particular impact of the antislavery movement on the practice of Britain’s leading portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Finally, the exhibition concludes by highlighting a number of cases in which portraiture became a means for some of African birth and descent who crossed the Atlantic aboard slave ships to forge new identities as both black and British.

The exhibition presents the portraits and their historical context through a wide range of media and art forms. Selected primarily from the Center’s holdings, the display also will be enriched by loans from other Yale collections, and from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Figures of Empire takes its place in a new body of scholarship and critical engagement with the legacy of slavery, including the recent high-profile films Twelve Years a Slave (2013) and Belle (2014). It also expands upon conversations begun by prior scholarly publications and exhibitions at the Center, most significantly Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and his Worlds (2007). While Art and Emancipation focused on slavery in British colonial Jamaica, this exhibition will turn its sights to Britain.

The exhibition includes a series of interviews with academic and curatorial scholars, as well as artists, to help place the works of art in a contemporary context. The interviews will be presented as part of an interactive presentation, accessible in the exhibition and on the Center’s website. In addition, a series of related programs, including lectures, exhibitions, a conference, and a film screening, is taking place across Yale University. Highlights include a pendant exhibition entitled Prospects of Empire: Slavery and Ecology in Atlantic Britain at the Lewis Walpole Library, and a major international conference planned in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, entitled Visualizing Slavery and British Culture in the Eighteenth Century.

Figures of Empire has been organized by the Center and curated by Esther Chadwick and Meredith Gamer, PhD candidates in the history of art at Yale University, and Cyra Levenson, Associate Curator of Education at the Yale Center for British Art.

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Figures of Empire: Opening Panel Discussion
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 8 October 2014, 5:30

A conversation with Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art, Yale University; Kobena Mercer, Professor, History of Art and African American Studies, Yale University; and Titus Kaphar, artist.

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