Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass
Samuel J. Miller
Plate: 5 1/2 x 4 1/8 in.; mat opening: 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in.; plate in closed case: 6 x 4 3/4 x 1/2 in.; plate in open case: 6 x 9 1/2 x 3/4 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment

Why do you think this well-dressed man is so stern? The nineteenth-century author, orator (speaker), and abolitionist Frederick Douglass sat for a number of portraits during his lifetime. This particular photograph was made in northeast Ohio, a hotbed of abolitionism where Douglass often gave speeches about his escape from slavery and urged his listeners to join the antislavery movement. Douglass was always careful to create the image he wanted the public to see. Notice the fine details of his clothing and the piercing gaze and furrowed brow that convey his determination. As was customary in those days for photographs because of the long exposure time, Douglass is not smiling, which adds to his serious appearance. It is as if the struggle for his people was embodied in his dignified and severe portrait.

Daguerreotypes such as this were the earliest kind of photographs. They were produced on small, silver-coated copper plates. People loved them for their clarity, detail, and small size. And, having a daguerreotype made was much less expensive than hiring a portrait painter! For this reason, they quickly became an extremely popular medium for portraits, particularly with the white middle class. As a result, accurate images of people, including politicians and notable personalities, became widespread in unprecedented ways. Early photographs of African Americans were rare though, simply because most could not afford nor access a photography studio. (Slaves were photographed only when their owners wanted it done.) For an abolitionist like Douglass, however, photographs were especially attractive because they could be made into wood engravings for magazine or newspaper publication, offering an additional means to spread awareness of him and his ideas.

1. How would a photograph, or a engraved print made from a photograph, help someone’s cause?

2. What sort of temperament can be inferred about Douglass from this portrait?  Compare your observations of the image with his July 4, 1952 speech, “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” ( Does the portrait align with the tone and message of the speech? Use visual evidence from the portrait to support your answer.

3. For people not used to seeing a powerful black man making speeches and talking about ideas, how do you think people reacted to Douglass? What about his appearance in this portrait supports your opinion?

4. How many photographs have you seen today? Who was pictured and were did you see them? Imagine your environment without all those photographs—especially those of loved ones away from home or famous people like politicians, scholars, or celebrities. Readily available images like those we see today didn’t exist before the introduction of photography and the daguerreotype in the 19th century. Research and consider the impact of photography for American culture at the time of the Civil War.

Further reading:

Foner, Eric. "The Civil War and the Story of American Freedom." Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 8-25 (plate 4, p. 18).

Newhall, Beaumont. The Daguerreotype in America. New York: Dover Publications, 1976.

Wilson, Jackie Napoleon. Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002.

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