Gallery Opening Gala

The audio-visual delights of the Yorkies drew a host of sighing groupies to the Addison Gallery on January 27. Additionally, some of those venturing past the entrance might have noticed the art. The main attraction last Friday was the opening of the Gallery’s Winter shows, “Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the 19th Century,” and “Young America: The Portraits of Southworth and Hawes.” “Portraits of a People” offers over 70 representations of and by black Americans in media ranging from cut paper to oil painting to photograph. The exhibition spans slightly over a century from the late 18th century to the late 19th century, a time of great change in black history. Works in the Addison reference black roles in the American Revolution, the Abolition movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the struggle for civil rights. The dignified set of subjects includes figures as prominent as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Many of the portraits, however, presented a less positive view of the early American black experience. One wood cut by Moses Williams is entitled “Mr. Shaw’s Blackman.” Williams, a former slave himself, only granted his sitters’ identities in reference to the men’s masters and race. Another prominent theme represented in the exhibition was the complexity of the family unit. Also included were works of Abolitionist propaganda depicting the plight of mixed-race slaves. Venturing upstairs, the abolition movement was notably represented in certain elements of the Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype show. The likeness of Andover’s own Harriet Beecher Stowe was on display, and as was the lone palm of Captain Jonathan Walker, branded “SS” for “slave stealer,” a mark dating from the man’s abortive attempt to free seven slaves in 1844. Opening four years after the invention of the daguerreotype, the partnership of Southworth and Hawes was active from 1843 to 1863, operating in the commercial heyday of the medium. The duo considered themselves a technological evolution in fine art, approaching their tableaux as a painter might. Yet, the ultimately commercial nature of their practice is evident. Nevertheless, the portraits are beautiful. The process, involving the exposure of a silver plate, required a great deal of skill. Incidentally, Southworth was a Phillips Academy graduate and learned the craft from fellow alum Samuel Morse. The studio attracted such luminaries of the early Republic as Lemuel Shaw, H.W. Longfellow, and Daniel Webster. Alongside these depictions of these celebrities hung scores of portraits whose sitters remain unidentified. Southworth and Hawes appealed to aristocrat and plebeian alike, recording both’s likenesses with equal dignity. In 1863, the practice closed. Much of the collection on view at the Addison was only recently discovered in a basement and went on to set records at a 1999 auction. Despite the intimate nature of their portraits, the accomplishments of Southworth and Hawes, collected as such, prove monumental.