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Watching black history emerge, subject by subject

19th-century portraits illuminate

Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century
At: Addison Gallery of American Art,
Phillips Academy, Andover, through March 26.

ANDOVER -- The slave Hercules was remembered as a proud, intelligent man, a good cook in the service of George Washington. At the end of Washington's second and final term as president in 1797, before the founding father retired to Virginia, Hercules disappeared from the presidential house in Philadelphia, then the nation's capital, ''and was never seen again."

So attests the catalog to ''Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century," an exhibit of more than 70 paintings, photographs, silhouettes, and prints at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover through March 26. Could it be Hercules gazing warily from the painting ''Presumed Portrait of George Washington's Cook"? It is traditionally attributed to Gilbert Stuart, but the painting's authorship and the identity of the sitter are as fugitive as Hercules himself.

Like Hercules's story, much of the history of black people in early America was lost or only cursorily recorded by the dominant, racist white culture. Slavery in America is thought of as a Southern scourge, but until the early 19th century it was practiced in the North as well. The Northern variety has often been described as kinder than its Southern counterpart, but little evidence supports this. Numerous accounts tell of Northern masters freeing slaves late in life, seemingly a kindness, when in fact they were often abandoning them so they wouldn't have to care for them in their old age.

In 1641, Massachusetts became the first British colony in North America to recognize slavery as a legal institution. By 1770, some 5,000 black slaves resided here. Among them was Phillis Wheatley, ''Negro servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston," as printed around her engraved portrait in the frontispiece to her 1773 collection of poems.

Wheatley was the first black person from New England to have her poetry publicly published in English and the first American woman to have her likeness printed with her writings. Her success helped win her freedom. Her portrait (attributed to Scipio Moorhead, another Boston slave) is so familiar from schoolbooks that it's startling to see the real thing here and find how rich it is in person.

For much of the history of Western art, black people appear rarely, and when they do it's often as servants toiling at the edges of white artists' peripheral vision or as symbols of exotic lands. The work at the Addison Gallery is uneven, but still powerful because it places black people front and center, as subjects and artists, illuminating the transition from slaves to African-American citizens. It demonstrates that effecting this change required reframing how they were seen, literally; it required making themselves visible.

Here we see a Revolutionary War spy, a Maine barber, and the first black Episcopal priest in the United States. We see a Mississippian who became the first black member of the US Senate, the leaders of the movement to found the free black republic in Africa that became Liberia, prosperous Boston clothing merchants, and three Africans imprisoned and awaiting trial in New Haven for their involvement in the 1839 uprising on the slave ship Amistad.

Though the long history of oppression hovers like a storm cloud, ultimately the show inspires by its portrait of our fellow citizens, our ancestors, persevering, asserting themselves, and forging free identities right before our eyes.

By the mid-19th century, Massachusetts was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement, led by such activists as William Lloyd Garrison with his newspaper the Liberator (though Massachusetts merchants continued to profit from slavery). The exhibit reflects the debate over slavery in America boiling over into the Civil War in photographs of the dashing Frederick Douglass, soldiers from the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment assembled in 1863, and children freed from slavery. And then, after the war, come portraits of or by African-American artists.

Near the end of the show is an 1864 series of photographic cards depicting the tall, gaunt Sojourner Truth dressed in the trappings of a middle-class matron. Truth, formerly enslaved in New York, became a famed orator, evangelist, abolitionist, and women's rights activist. These cards were sold during her appearances or at abolitionist fund-raisers to collect money for her efforts. It's not so much the photographs that stand out but the slogan printed along the bottom of the cards: ''I sell the shadow to support the substance." Her identity, her likeness -- attributes that were commodities belonging to others in her youth -- were now her own, and she would use them for her own ends.

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