WE APPRECIATE YOUR PATIENCE: As we transition our order fulfillment and warehousing to W. W. Norton select titles may temporarily appear as out-of-stock. Please check your local bookstores or other online booksellers.

An “Active Absence”: the Materiality of Lost Images

Jennifer Van Horn—

How do we study an image that is no longer there, one that cannot be experienced? This question gains urgency when we consider portraits of enslaved Americans of African descent, portraits whose creation, survival, and place in the art historical record were all contested. In 1755, the Charleston, South Carolina, planter, enslaver, and slave trader Henry Laurens had a portrait made of Stepney (surname unknown), a man of African origin or descent whom Laurens enslaved. That image might have been completed in pastel on paper, oil paint on canvas, or even watercolor on ivory. We do not know because the portrait does not survive other than through an archival trace in Laurens’s letters. This ephemeral image is one of several depictions of enslaved persons from British North America and the early United States that white enslavers paid artists to complete, but which are no longer accessible in physical form.  

Almost a century later, around 1833, Louisiana planter and enslaver Thomas Pugh commissioned a portrait of his enslaved driver Homer Ryan. Pugh displayed this image in the parlor of his plantation house, Madewood, where Louisa Martin, then a young girl who was enslaved there, viewed Ryan’s portrait. She recalled that now-lost image during an interview conducted far from Madewood many years after slavery ended. That conversation concluded with Martin sharing an image of herself with her interviewer (fig 1). Like the portrait of Stepney, Homer Ryan’s image haunts the white-dominated archive of portraiture, in this case through the fleeting words of an elderly Black woman preserved along with her image in a government-funded archive.  

Fig. 1. After an unknown photographer, Louisa Sidney Martin, c. 1890 – 1920. Photographic crayon portrait. Dimensions unknown. Marcus Christian Collection, MSS 11, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans.

Art historians and scholars of material culture studies have developed many theoretical and methodological approaches—thing theory, actor-network-theory and vibrant materialism, to name a few—that are predicated on the study of objects’ materiality: tracing a physical interaction that binds human, nonhuman, and sometimes more-than-humans. But what and where is the materiality of an absent image? Art historians’ focus on surviving artworks is understandable for materialist-based studies, but it has significant political consequences that are often unacknowledged. A positivist-based art history does not allow for study of missing images like Stepney’s portrait. Nor does it account for the ways that the legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism affected whose likenesses were revered and whose allowed to slip away unnoticed.  

Homer Ryan’s missing portrait offers a striking example of the power dynamics of preservation in the twentieth and twenty-first century United States. Oil-on-canvas portraits of the white Pugh family members who enslaved Ryan were documented in the 1970s by members of the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America. They included the Pugh paintings in the Louisiana volume of their series that recorded early American portraits; that volume did not feature Ryan’s image. Had Ryan’s likeness already been disassociated from the Pugh portraits or might its presence alongside those images have raised troubling questions in a racially-divided South?

In recent years as many museums have sought to increase the inclusivity of their collections and the demand for historic artworks that feature Black subjects has increased, there has also been a rise in the opposite process: when images persist, but the names of Black subjects and the circumstances of their lives have been lost. In these instances, rare historic depictions of Black sitters that have survived circulate in the art market with the sitter’s identifying information forgotten or disremembered. It is only with meticulous, time-consuming, and occasionally serendipitous research, that these Black figures’ histories can sometimes be reclaimed, as was the case this summer with a portrait now attributed to Jacques Amans of Bélizaire, a young man enslaved in Louisiana, who was pictured alongside the white children of the Frey family who enslaved him. Bélizaire’s image at one point was covered in paint and only now has been made visible again. 

I have been discussing images commissioned by enslavers, however a focus on materialism also fails to acknowledge images of Black subjects that were keenly desired by their friends and families, but could only rarely be realized in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century United States. When enslaved persons could, they made use of the new medium of photography and commissioned images that allowed the likenesses of loved ones who were sold or absent to be kept in their family’s eyes. But the racialized conditions of portrait making meant that for many enslaved African Americans, images of their loved ones could not be given material form. These unmade portraits instead occupied what African American abolitionist, orator, and author Frederick Douglass poetically labeled the “picture gallery of the soul.” Douglass’s words conjure an inherently immaterial visual archive. 

Fig. 2. James Cowles Pritchard, Head of Rameses, from The Natural History of Man. (London, H. Ballière, 1845). Etching, dimensions unknown. American Antiquarian Society, Wooster, MA.

In Douglass’s case, this picture gallery included an image of his mother, who died early in his life, and of whom no portrait was ever made. Later when Douglass chanced upon an illustration in an anthropology text (fig 2), he discovered “the features . . . so resemble[d] those of my mother, that I often recur to it with something of the feeling which I supposed others experience when looking upon the pictures of dear departed ones.” Deprived of a physical likeness, Douglass used his imagination to re-create a portrait that never was. The tragedy that Douglass, the most photographed person of the nineteenth-century who used his image as a crucial part of his public persona (fig 3), was not able to gaze on his mother’s photograph testifies to slavery’s deformation of the visual archive. Douglass’s immaterial image of his mother, like Stepney’s and Homer Ryan’s portraits, is only perceivable when looking across archives (textual and visual) and engaging in an act of creative viewership.  

Fig. 3. B. F. Smith & Son, Frederick Douglass, c. 1964, Portland, Maine. Albumen print (carte de visite format), 4 x 2 3/8 in. (10 x 6 cm). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

In my book I propose that we might take the act of creative looking that Douglass models for his readers as a guide for art historians. Douglass’s approach recognizes what cannot be recovered and yet gives absence—in this case both a missing image and often unacknowledged Black subjectivities—a shape, presence, or perhaps a materiality. Douglass’s creative viewership resonates with the strategies deployed by historians who seek to, in Saidiya Hartman’s powerful words, tell “a history of an unrecoverable past.” A rich body of literature from scholars in Black studies, including Hartman, has had a tremendous impact on many disciplines and fields and has encouraged us to consider material absence not as a stopping point but rather as an opportunity for creative approaches in which scholars read archives against one another to fill individual archives’ silences. Contemporary African American artist Titus Kaphar has labeled similar acts of creative recovery in his artistic practice as making visible an “active absence.” As Kaphar described, “Something is gone and something is present. And . . . I think about the history itself much in the same way.” A full history acknowledges both loss and recovery. Kaphar’s words remind me that as scholars we must be respectful of what cannot be recovered and what must be left unknown and unstated. My subject position as a white scholar makes it particularly important not only to be attentive to possible biases, but also to be clear why and how I have come to certain conclusions so that I don’t inadvertently inscribe my scholarly desires—or my voice—on to Black subjects.

As we begin to trace the outlines and to allow others to bear witness to the many “picture galleries of the soul” to return to Douglass’s poetic phrase, I look forward to seeing how art historians can put the skills of materialist-based studies to work even in the absence of materials themselves. Such a project of thinking with and through “active absence(s)” is vital for art history to move beyond the politically-determined constraints of survival and to move away from Euro-centrism in order to encompass multiple visual and material trajectories, and historical and contemporary actors, Stepney and Homer Ryan among them. 

This blog post expands and is adapted from Portraits of Resistance: Activating Art During Slavery, published by Yale University Press in 2022.  

Jennifer Van Horn is associate professor of art history and history at the University of Delaware.

Recent Posts

All Blogs