(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
In September 1810 a black sailor from Boston, today known only as Wilson, arrived in London. Overnight he became the object of obsessive attention by the art establishment. Veteran painters and younger artists alike rhapsodized over the classical perfection of his bodily proportions and muscular development.
The artist of this painting, George Dawe, went to great lengths to secure Wilson’s services as a model. During drawing sessions, the appreciation of the young man’s ideal form was complemented by anecdotes of his physical prowess in America. He told Dawe of recently having wrestled a buffalo to the ground with his bare hands. Instantly the artist — determined to produce a life-size, finished oil painting of the act, without imposing any quasi-literary interpretive conceit upon it — had Wilson re-create the pose. The resulting canvas was exhibited in 1811 to considerable acclaim in the annual exhibition at the British Institution.
Modern critics have looked at the picture with a different set of concerns. It has often been pointed out that Wilson’s facial features are scarcely visible, while only the animated head of the buffalo is left to convey the conscious agency of the struggle. As it turns out, Dawe and his contemporaries did not find everything about Wilson’s physical form so unflawed. Among the reservations of Benjamin Robert Haydon, who engaged Wilson as a model for a full month, was what for him was an overly prominent jaw and sloping forehead. Leading anatomists and racial theorists of the time considered such characteristics to be typical of less evolved examples of the human species, and in some cases they posited the existence of separate and decidedly unequal races.
It is at this point that the otherness of Wilson within the elite artistic and intellectual circles of Britain becomes apparent. This impression is reinforced by the depiction of blacks by other British artists of the time. Many of these kept to Dawe’s theme of the elemental struggle between man and beast, played out far beyond the modifying influence of civilization. In one remarkable case, however — Henry Fuseli’s The Negro Revenged of 1806-07 — a black man is endowed with the supernatural extension of physical power to cause the wreck of a slave ship in the distance.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.