“The Art of Ambition in the Colonial Northeast”: Addison Exhibit Gives Insight to American Colonial Life

Washington Allston, “Tragic Figure in Chains,” 1800. Watercolor on paper mounted on panel, museum purchase.

A deranged smirk carves the face of a maniacal, secluded man, permanently frozen in place. Chains and shredded sheets snake around his arms and torso, covering half of his unadulterated body. His eyes glare fiercely, sharp teeth protruding from behind his demonic sneer as he takes a step out from the pitch black darkness imprisoning him.

These are images of a painting titled “Tragic Figure in Chains”–one of the pieces of art in the Addison Gallery of American Art’s “The Art of Ambition in the Colonial Northeast.” Gordon Wilkins, curator of this exhibition, claims this piece to be one of his favorites.

“I think it conjures a lot of imagery. This man, who’s in bondage and wearing tattered clothes, and his arms are chained. If you think about this, it was done in the 18th century, and then you think about slavery in the United States. It’s a really unusual, disturbing piece…It’s not the expected, which is what I was going for [in this gallery],” says Wilkins.

When Christy Wei ’21 first walked into the gallery, she noticed the wide variety of mediums on display, ranging from two-dimensional portraits and paintings to three-dimensional statues.

“[The space] is really three-dimensional. You can see drawers and rugs that you can almost feel like you can touch the texture,” said Wei. It’s not just about the portraits, like fancy people… It kind of gives you a more holistic view of that time.”

Standing in a row on a pastel-blue pedestal, five silver teapots shimmer under the museum lights. Belonging to famous historical figures such as Peter Oliver and Paul Revere, these seemingly unimportant accessories actually carry significant meaning to one’s prosperity and social status.

“Silver was a powerful symbol of affluence and wealth, so if you were able to own and possess even one of these objects, it would symbolize much greater wealth. It tells a lot about your socioeconomic status, your world-view, your personal style, [and] point of view,” said Wilkins.

Wei also interpreted the rugs as a symbol of feminism in early America and the impact women had on people’s everyday lives.

“[The rugs are] actually made by women, which the Addison says is a way to see how feminism played a role in early colonial America. So I think they were really trying to give you different elements and different aspects of colonial life,” said Wei.

Another exhibit in the gallery is a portrait of Abraham Hanson, a barber from Maine. His dark skin against a soft, magenta background complements his luxurious, dark outfit. Though his smile is relatively faint, his chest puffs out proudly. On a wall of portraits filled with white people, Hanson’s image stands out.

“This is one of the most important pieces in our collection from this time period. It’s one of the few non-stereotyped portraits of African Americans from the pre-civil war era,” said Wilkins. “He’s included because I wanted to draw attention… The inclusion of this beautiful, dignified portrait of Abraham Hansen shines the light on what we have to do as a museum to make our collection reflect the realities of America.”