This life-size study of a model’s head and shoulders evokes a tradition of heroic and divine imagery stretching back to antiquity. The far-off gaze would conventionally suggest philosophical reflection or moral aspiration, while the heavy red cloak billows out like the costume of a saint in seventeenth-century religious art.
The painting is closely linked to John Simpson’s larger subject painting The Captive Slave 1827, which reappeared on the art market and was purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, showing the same sitter but in half-length format, manacled to a bench. That painting was exhibited in London in 1827 accompanied by lines from William Cowper’s anti-slavery poem ‘Charity’ (1782). Although the slave trade had been made illegal within the British Empire in 1807, slavery continued in British colonies until the 1830s and remained a hugely divisive political issue. Simpson’s paintings can, therefore, be interpreted as interventions in an ongoing dispute about race and slavery.
The present painting was shown as ‘Head of a Black’ at the exhibition of the British Institution in 1827. Although exhibited originally as an anonymous figure, the model appears to be the American actor Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807–1867). He had come to Britain in 1824 and made his debut on the London stage in 1825. In the face of much racial prejudice he took on a wide variety of roles and established an international reputation. He was painted by several artists in the early stages of his career, including John Jackson, Henry Perronet Briggs and James Northcote.
The painting was probably purchased at the time of its exhibition by the important patron of contemporary British art, Robert Vernon. He presented his collection to the nation in 1847. When the work was engraved in the Art Journal in 1853, it was given the title of ‘The Negro’ and mistakenly attributed to ‘W. Simpson’ (The Art Journal, vol.9, 1853, p.312). The accompanying text imagined it as a suitable illustration of the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s recent and hugely popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852): ‘for it is a fine noble face, notwithstanding its African origin, and its melancholy expression, as if the spirit could never, even though schooled into submission by the principles of Christianity, become inured to the state of degradation into which the body is subjected’. This commentary, connecting the image to one of the defining texts of modern racial attitudes and praising the physical beauty of the sitter in a highly qualified way, conveys an ambiguous appreciation of the work in line with dominant Victorian attitudes to race. The painting was kept among the ‘Miscellaneous Works’ in the basement of the National Gallery in the later nineteenth century, and it appears to have been mainly in storage since being transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919. Its potential historical importance has subsequently become clearer with the re-appearance of The Captive Slave and renewed interest in the life and career of Aldridge.
Paul Gilroy, Picturing Blackness in British Art 1700s–1990s, exhibition pamphlet, Tate Gallery, London 1995, no.13.
Jan Marsh (ed.), Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800–1900, exhibition catalogue, Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester 2005, no.88.
Martin Postle, ‘The Captive Slave by John Simpson (1782–1847): A Rediscovered Masterpiece’, British Art Journal, vol.9, no.3, 2009, pp.18–26.