The Black Image in the English Gaze: Depictions of Blackness in English Art

Tony Frazier
2019 International Journal of Art and Art History  
This paper analyzes English art to view the black experience in the eighteenth-century. English painters placed black people into their portraits in various stations of life throughout the period. The fashioning and placement of black people in English art renders for the reader some interpretation how English artists used the black body in their paintings. These images of blacks emerged from the imaginations of white artists; thusly these portraits and prints are not from the black perspective
more » ... of English society, but a reflection of white attitudes. Therefore, a certain caution exists in any interpretation of the paintings. The inference about the implications of the paintings develops from the gaze of white artists. This paper suggests that an interpretation through English art does reveal something about the status of black people and shed light on satirical explanations of race and sex in eighteenth-century England. In the minds of many white Londoners of the eighteenth century, blacks were very present in society. White Londoners in fact constructed their own images of blacks, which in many ways related to social reality of the day. Nonetheless, white cultural construction of blacks in London has its own reality and is important in understanding the lives of the minority population. The visual culture and blackness evolved from the cultural viewpoint of white artists. For the viewer of these images, this depiction of black life found its conceptualization from a white framework. The depicted images of blacks in London were created in the imaginations of whites; thus, these portraits and prints are not the black point of view of English society, but a reflection of white attitudes expressed in visual depictions. Journalists, essayists, playwrights, and artists all contributed to the cultural image of blacks in multiple ways in eighteenth-century London. White representations of blacks provide the opportunity to explore how English society sought to deal with the population of black people. Englishmen expressed a litany of concerns and beliefs about the blacks they saw in their surroundings. Not all images projected fear or alarm; artists sometimes depicted blacks in everyday life and imagined situations as peaceful and helpful, but subservient. Whites often used black images to boost their own status and privilege. Black people arrived in eighteenth-century England from various points of the globe. Their origins included Africa, the West Indies, and North and South America. They entered English society under the status of slaves, servants, freeman and even as celebrated individuals. Although their status varied, the majority entering were slaves; property of the returning Englishman who came back to the metropole as government officials, ship captains, and planters. London, Bristol, and Liverpool in their roles as ports of calls for the Atlantic Slave Trade provided entry points for black bodies as the commodities produced by enslaved African labor arrived on the English shore. The estimated numbers of the black population in the period postulated that 30,000 black people lived in London in the late eighteenth-century. The reaction to the black people in the English mind through the medium of images represents a unique to vantage point to examine the black presence in England.
doi:10.15640/ijaah.v7n2a4 fatcat:u7pdz3jj2rdideksrz3kgfclvu