The Captive Slave

August 27, 2008


 The Art Institute of Chicago Wednesday announced a “major acquisition” of a landmark British painting that has not been seen in public for 180 years.

The Captive Slave (1827) by British portraitist John Philip Simpson, was purchased from Ben Elwes Fine Art in London, according to a release Wednesday from the Art Institute.

The Captive Slave “is a heroically-scaled representation of a manacled slave created at an important historical juncture in the history of the abolitionist movement in Great Britain,” according to the release. The work has not been seen in public since its exhibition in London and in Liverpool in 1828.

“The Captive Slave is a deeply compelling and historically significant painting,” Douglas Druick, Searle Chair of the Department of Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, said. “Simpson, an artist known primarily as a portrait painter fully immersed in the official Royal Academy, took a great professional risk in creating a work that expressed his deeply held anti-slavery beliefs.”

The painting depicts a black man dressed in deep red-orange, seated against a shallow background composed of browns and grays. The subject, his hands resting on his thighs and his wrists shackled with heavy chains, turns his head and looks upward, out of the frame.

The Captive Slave was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1827, when the controversy over slavery in Britain was at its height. That same year the British Parliament declared participation in the slave trade to be punishable by death, setting the stage for the eventual passage of the Slavery Abolition Act six years later, in 1833. The painting was also exhibited in 1828, in Liverpool and again in London. Held in private collections since that time, the work has not been publicly seen in 180 years.

Simpson’s model for the painting was the free-born American Ira Aldridge. The painting’s debut in 1827 coincided with Aldridge’s growing reputation as the first great black Shakespearean actor on the British stage.



Simpson’s painting is certainly a stunning new addition to the Art Institute’s impressive catalog, and I expect it will become very popular. Who could disagree with its plaintively obvious message: that the unjust institution of slavery should be abolished?

But images are never so simple. Our captive slave is not a slave at all: it is a free-born black actor modeling the costume of a slave. This costume is wrenched open at the neck, leaving the slave exposed; the V-shaped opening points down to the slave’s manacles. His expression, plaintive, helpless, yearning, casts its gaze upwards as if to plead for some sort of divine intervention from above. The whole painting emphasizes the completeness of slavery — our subject is bound, and only an external force will free him. 

This, in fact, is not very much like slavery at all. Real slaves were rarely completely and totally enslaved — they resisted in numerous ways, they escaped frequently, they occasionally rebelled against their masters. They were in fact agents of their own freedom, a freedom that was fought for, not merely bestowed upon them by a benevolent white man. But Simpson’s portrayal makes this reality unthinkable. We cannot imagine this slave escaping, destroying his master’s property, organizing rebellions. As controversial as “Captive Slave” was at its unveiling, the portrayal of the reality of slave agency, of a slave who was a human being of potential power, not an object of pity, would have been far more tendentious, perhaps even threatening to the well-meaning abolitionists. On the contrary, Simpson’s slave is in total supplication, both to Simpson’s audience of sympathetic wealthy liberal abolitionists and to the painter himself — an image that flatters its audience by appealing to their sense of benevolent superiority without threatening their power over the black subject by treating him as an agent of self-emancipation.


Benjamin Haydon - The Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840

Benjamin Haydon - "The Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840": blacks as spectators to their emancipation

We continue to see these same types of images reproduced again and again in Western media — photos more often than oil paintings of course. They flatter our privilege and the power that comes with it, without threatening our sense of superiority by treating their subjects as equals, perhaps as partners in the struggle for their own emancipation.


Standard Darfur-porn

Standard Darfur-porn

What these images cry out for is a divine intervention, with the U.S. as gods. And like gods we possess the ability to omnipotently strike from above. These pictures say many things, and one thing they are being used to say is to call for military intervention: air strikes, tanks, humvees, “peacekeepers” with automatic weapons. Because such abjection seemingly calls for cathartic pity and overwhelming military force that plays to the narcissistic Western conscience that wants little more than to think “I have done something!” You might ask the children of Iraq and Afghanistan how much improved their lives are since U.S. military intervention.

These powerless objects of our pity, even when we sympathize with the cause the images represent, work to bolster the feeling of omnipotence, a feeling which allows people to overcome the contradiction of calling for another’s freedom while maintaining one’s own power and privilege. Simpson’s piece, while powerful and successful in many ways, is part of a continuing — dubious — tradition.