The Captive Slave

John Simpson

John Simpson was an English painter, known for his portraits.

Max Resolution:610×768 PX

Title:The Captive Slave

Artists:John Simpson





Location:Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, US

Dimensions:127×101.5 cm

Copyright:Public domain

The Captive Slave is a portrait painted by the artist John Simpson (1782–1847), which was first exhibited in London in 1827. It shows a man, manacled, on a stone bench and looking pensively or plaintively upward. Its subject matter, historical period, and mode of creation suggest the artist intended the painting as a statement against slavery. Until acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, it had not been displayed to the public for 180 years.

The three-quarter portrait shows a dark-skinned man in orange-red open collar clothing, sitting on a stone bench, against a muted background, with the sitter taking up most the frame. Large metallic manacles are visible around his wrists, which lie on his lap, and a heavy chain falls across the bench and out of the frame. The man is gazing up and to his left.

At its original showing it was entitled, The Captive Slave, and the viewer is informed of the sitter's condition as a slave by the manacles and by his dark skin, which connects him to the African slave trade. His clothes suggest somewhat foreign origin but also prison garb. The features of the subject show the man as a recognizable individual person. The painting is described as a portrait but also a hybrid with genre painting, as the name of the character in the painting is unknown. His aspect is saintly or heroic, imploring, vulnerable, and somewhat passive in rest, which allowed the British viewer when the portrait was shown to safely sympathize or pity the subject and deplore his condition. While the portrait follows high art conventions for depicting the saintly or long suffering, portraits of individual slaves were rare in the European high art tradition.

The artist, John Simpson, was a British portrait painter, who studied at the Royal Academies, and was a longtime assistant of the portraitist Thomas Lawrence. Today, Simpson is described as "little known". The painting was created on a used canvas that x-rays show had previously depicted a stately home and another portrait; this reuse suggests that the artist did not paint it on commission, which is how he made his living, but here he appears to have chosen the subject of his own volition. The portrait was displayed in London at the Royal Academy not once but twice, in 1827 and again in 1828; it was also displayed at an exhibition at the Liverpool Academy in 1828.

In this period, Britain was debating whether to abolish slavery throughout its empire. The British slave trade had been outlawed in 1807, but abolition was still a pressing political question in the late 1820s. Against this background, the two London showings and the showing in Liverpool, "a city synonymous with the slave trade, and whose merchants continued to prosper from [slavery]" is seen as significant. The artist included lines of William Cowper' poetry in the first exhibition catalogue: "Ah but! what wish can prosper or what prayer/for merchants rich in cargoes of despair" (from the poem, Charity, 1784). Reviewer Martin Postle concludes: