The Freedman

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The Freedman
John Quincy Adams Ward
19 5/8 x 15 3/4 x 9 7/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Roger McCormick Endowment

Do you think this freed slave is looking back to make sure that he has safely escaped? Or, do you think he is looking ahead, toward an uncertain future as a free man? John Quincy Adams Ward’s bronze sculpture, The Freedman, realistically depicts the twisting, muscular body of a semi-nude black African American man seated on a tree stump. He has just broken free from the shackles that bound him to slavery; parts of the chains still dangle from his wrist. He is now truly a “freed man”, yet what his freedom means to him is not yet clear in a nation still engaged in civil war. Created and first exhibited just months after the signing of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, this powerful work embodies Ward’s desire to portray the complexities of ending slavery.

In the 1860s, freed slaves were rarely shown as responsible for their own independence. Instead they were often shown as being emancipated by either Abraham Lincoln or by personifications of liberty who spontaneously smash their chains. By contrast, Ward’s figure is heroic—he has freed himself and is the agent of his own destiny. This small statue, which was originally modeled in plaster, conveys the enslaved man’s nobility through a combination of classical proportions and determined gaze. The idealized figure with its bulging muscles and smooth skin—not the tattered clothes and scarred body of a slave that one would expect—resembles ancient sculptures of heroic figures from Greece or Rome. Audiences of the time, familiar with famous classical works of art, would have recognized this connection and appreciated Ward’s imagery. Not surprisingly, The Freedman proved to be popular in the North and numerous bronze replicas were made from the original plaster version at three different foundries, or factories for bronze casting.

1. Based on what you see, what do you think it was like for this man to escape from slavery? Research and find former slaves' descriptions of their escapes. Consider the similarities and differences between the written descriptions and this sculpture.

2. How has Ward portrayed the complexities of ending slavery? Read the Emancipation Proclamation and abolitionist speeches, such as those by Frederick Douglass, and look at other images of African Americans after 1863: Come and Join us Brothers and Contraband on Cairo Levee. Make a comparison of these various primary sources to The Freedman. What different views or ideas can you identify about the “uncertain future” of the freed slave?

Further reading:
Barter, Judith A. et al. American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I. New York: Hudson Hills Press. 1998.

Savage, Kirk. “Molding Emancipation: John Quincy Adams Ward’s The Freedman and the Meaning of the Civil War.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, 1 (2001): 26-39.

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