Ambrotype Folk Art Portrait of a Haitian Revolutionary Officer.
American? 1855-1864. First. Sixth plate ambrotype, heavily hand-painted, 2 ½ x 3 inches, cased in 4 ½ x 5 inch thermoplastic hanging frame. Very Good. Item #List1019
The Haitian Revolution had a profound affect on attitudes toward slavery in Antebellum America, influencing black attitudes regarding Pan-Africanism and self-governance, stoking fear in southern slaveholding whites of slavery’s bloody aftermath, and fueling the rise of abolitionism. Alfred Hunt, in Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean, states: “Haiti became a primary symbol for those blacks who were trying to counter the argument that free blacks were incapable of sustaining civilization outside the confines of slavery. Obviously, the founding of a black republic in the New World also contributed to the development of a sense of black nationalism. In this way, Haiti was related to later black militancy and Pan-Africanism.” The revolution was embraced by abolitionists as an example to follow, and with the rise of militant abolitionism in the North, the Haitian Revolution and the figure of Toussaint Louverture in particular were prominent in abolitionist iconography.
Offered here is a wonderful and quite unusual Civil War-era folk art portrayal of an officer in the Haitian Revolution wearing the distinctive Haitian uniform and holding what is presumably the Emancipation Decree. Given the folk art form, the symbolic nature of the revolution in its entirety, and the lack of reliable imagery of most participants in the Haitian Revolution, it is impossible to say with certainty if the image is intended to represent anyone specific. Of all the likely candidates, the likeness perhaps best resembles published portraits of Jeanne-Pierre Royer. Though this picture looks nothing like other portraits of Louverture, his iconic status certainly makes it possible, probable perhaps, that this picture was intended to be of him, or if not of him then perhaps its intent was to symbolize the Haitian Revolution in a more abstract form. “The rise of militant abolitionism in the North in the 1830s resulted in sustained interest in what Toussaint’s life symbolized,” states Hunt. Louverture was the frequent subject of abolitionist articles, and was popular too with the literati of the day, and the story of the revolution serialized many times in magazines. Louverture and the Haitian Revolution were prominent in the work of William Wells Brown, perhaps the most prominent African-American author of the antebellum period, was well-versed in the Haitian Revolution and wrote about it extensively. He profiled seven Haitian leaders in The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius and His Achievements (1863). “Although black and white abolitionists portrayed Toussaint as larger than life,” states Hunt,” they emphasized different aspects of his character… whites… stressed Toussaint’s racial moderation and temperance; blacks admired his qualities as a Spartacus who threw off the yoke of oppression.”
Despite the fascination with Louverture, there was little uniformity to how his likeness was portrayed. After a wave of portraits of L’Ouverture early in the nineteenth century - most made by people who had never seen him - few new portraits were produced until Nicolas Eustache Maurin’s portrait of 1838. Maurin’s portrait, though considered to be racist by some modern scholars for its use of stereotypical caricature, was perhaps based on a picture, now lost, that L’Ouverture had given to Roume Saint-Laurent in 1801. David Geggus, in his essay The Changing Faces of of Toussaint L’Ouverture, states: “Most of the pictures of Toussaint that were published in his lifetime or shortly afterward were drawn by people who had neither seen him nor even been to the Caribbean. The portraits that were hurriedly concocted in 1802 for the works of Dubroca and Cousin d’Avallon, for the Vita privata in Italy, and the Frühere Geschichte in Germany, and the two portraits published in Mexico City in 1806 bear little resemblance to one another except for their rather cartoonish appearance.”
The ambrotype was invented in the mid 1850s and was in existence until it was superceded by the tintype in the early 1860s. This is the only example we have ever encountered of a folk art image referencing the Haitian Revolution from this period. We find no other photographic folk art examples of L’Ouverture portraits from the nineteenth century. The process of painting over ambrotypes and other images was fairly common, though this example is more heavily painted than others we have encountered. Overall a unique and important survival. Some chips at edges (not visible framed), rear emulsion with a few small spots of loss (also not visible), but overall a very good example.
Hunt, Alfred N. Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America, Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2006.
Geggus, David. The Changing Face of Toussaint Louverture. https://www.brown.edu/Facilities/John_Carter_Brown_Library/exhibitions/toussaint/index.html
Offered in partnership with Daniel / Oliver Gallery.