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Perhaps unexpectedly, various landscapes appear throughout the University of Delaware Baltimore Collection of portrait photographs. Sprinkled here and there, some are real, some are fake. Some were likely lush green, some others grey. And some, even, are fading away. Across time and locations, the sitters featured in the collection interact with landscapes and inhabit them. Whether the flat painted vistas of studio backgrounds, the streets of unidentified cities, or the manicured lawn of a park or backyard, the individuals portrayed here embrace landscape in all its forms. At the very least, their presence in the landscape manifests a powerful agency to reclaim spaces and imagine themselves into a world shaped by White racism.

Portrait of a smiling woman outdoors, sitting on the gras, with trees in the background

[Portrait of an unidentified young woman outdoors, seated in the grass near a wooded landscape], 2001.0017.0028, The Baltimore Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

As a scholar of U.S. landscape art, I am always intrigued by the way landscape and people interact to build new identities and discourses. In one of the Baltimore Collection views, taken in the early 20th century, a young woman sits on the grass in front of a patch of vegetation. Her hand connects with the soil, as she tilts her head to address a wide smile to the photographer. As framed, she is almost overwhelmed by nature. The high tree line makes her appear tiny, yet also as an integral part of her environment, in the sheer enjoyment of the outdoors, the unabashed delight of feeling, touching, beholding a moment of nonchalance without walls.

This joyful pose offers a welcome contrast to the interaction between Black sitters and landscapes as often depicted in American portraits and visual culture since the 18th century. In the colonial era, Black figures mostly occupied the margins of the frame, inhabiting the landscape of their own enslavement, deprived of names and identities. America’s nature, burdened by slavery and reshaped by commercial expansion, was a landscape of suffering.

Painted portrait of a young White boy standing with a Black man kneeling to his left, in a landscape

John Hesselius (1728-1778), Charles Calvert and [his slave], 1761, oil on canvas, Baltimore Museum of Art, on display at the Maryland State House, Annapolis.

Consider John Hesselius’ portrait of Charles Calvert (1761), where the Black man accompanying a five-year old Lord Baltimore is only identified as “his slave” within the catalogue of the Maryland State House collections. He is, at the same time, part of and excluded from the landscape that enslaved people like him were forced to toil on.

In the early 19th century, Black portraits outside of environments of enslavement often retreated indoors. Though Black individuals started being depicted in their individuality and not as mere types, the realm of the image still shut them out of a wider social world, enclosing them in indoor poses with neutral backgrounds, in undetermined settings. The White gaze, artist or audience, seemed unwilling to comprehend a Black individuality evolving freely in public spaces, the same spaces it dominated economically, politically, and culturally. This separation led to what art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw has described as “the trope of the black body […] used in an alternate mode as a prop to establish the identities of the colonizing bodies that sought to control it. [1]”

William Matthew Prior (1806–1873), Nancy Lawson, 1843, oil on canvas, Shelburne Museum, Vermont.

Notable exceptions include Nathaniel Jocelyn’s famous portrait of Joseph Cinqué [Sengbe Pieh] (1839), leader of the rebellion on board the slave ship Amistad, and William Matthew Prior’s portrait of Nancy Lawson (1843), where a glimpse of landscape is caught through a window, almost masked by drapes.

Photography initially reprised the formulas tried out by portrait painting. Yet the neutral, uniform backdrop of the first daguerreotypes soon gave way to the use of cloth wall coverings, suggesting an opening. This, in turn, triggered the resort to painted landscapes as surrogates for the world beyond, unsuitable to the needs for control (and long exposure time) of studio photography. Paradoxically, the propped landscapes of portrait photography became a way for most African American sitters to reinvest spheres many of them had long been excluded from. While White artists often reinserted emancipated enslaved people into landscapes through the means of aestheticization, nostalgia, and patronizing sentimentality (see, for instance, Winslow Homer’s Watermelon Boys from 1876), photographic landscapes allowed for a new sense of projection of blackness, despite the occasional mawkishness.

Here, I would like to dwell on the portrait of a woman seated in front of such a backdrop. Her pose is self-assured. Wearing an elegant dress, with her hair combed into a bun, she looks directly at the camera.

Portrait of an unidentified seated woman in front of a painted backdrop depicting a lighthouse

[Portrait of an unidentified seated woman in front of a painted backdrop], 1860-1880, 2001.0017.0045, The Baltimore Collection, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

The painted seascape behind her depicts rushing waters at the foot of a lighthouse. The folds of her dress echo the tumultuous waves. To the right, two painted anemometers evoke the strength of the winds, while a sail visible next to the woman’s left shoulder figures a struggling ship. Why would the sitter choose, or at least accept, to be seated in front of such a sublimely violent scene? One can assume, in this post-Civil War period, that she had some degree of involvement in electing her background. And indeed, the composition of the picture can read as an attempt to convey fortitude over external circumstances, a place in and a control on one’s landscape. Her steadiness in contrast to the agitated landscape is commanding. Her persistence through the tempestuous elements is more than a survival through the image. It is a survival through the nadir of complex race relations in the late-19th-century United States.

Studio portrait of an unidentified seated woman in front of Capitol Building backdrop

[Studio portrait of an unidentified seated woman in front of Capitol Building backdrop], 1918-1930, 2001.0017.0038, The Baltimore Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

In a similar vein, the later studio portrait of a woman posing with a painted Capitol Building backdrop creates an effect of stability in front of the most politically-charged landscape in the country. Here, the landscape not only symbolically reinserts the sitter into the polis of Washington, D.C., yet also into the politics of the Roaring Twenties and the American polity (collectivity, nation) embodied by the Capitol dome and its grand marble steps. The sitter, in a nutshell, reintegrates the community, at a time when movements like the Harlem Renaissance were promoting a new identity for African Americans as citizens and architects of change.

Turning the inside into the outside, such photographs opened the horizon of the studio to open up black imagery beyond the walls of portraiture and the invisible yet palpable barriers of racial discourses. Though many pictures in the Baltimore Collection accomplish this goal, others hint at the fragility of one’s status, and at the dangers of oblivion. A counterpoint to the portrait-landscape that opened this text, a second picture presents another narrative of nature.

Portrait of an unidentified young woman outdoors, seated in the grass near a birdbath

[Portrait of an unidentified young woman outdoors, seated in the grass near a birdbath], 1900-1950, 2001.0017.0029c, The Baltimore Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

Another woman, or most likely the same sitter in different surroundings, adopts a relaxed smiling pose on the grass, next to a birdbath, surrounded by vegetation. Civilization, however, is creeping in through an electric pole. Human society, in all its orderliness, is infringing. More significantly, this picture is disappearing. Physical damage and time are erasing the woman’s face and her environment. Her legs and part of her torso are barely visible today, though her smile endures. The landscape is slowly giving way. What the image encourages is a pressing need to preserve the past into the present, so that the landscapes of America, both physical and visual, may remain populated. So they may continue to belong to everyone.

[1] Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 2006), 17.

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