John Bell, The Octoroon, 1868. Marble, 159.6 cm high.
Town Hall, Blackburn, U.K.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Though it would hardly seem likely at first glance, this pallid image of slavery directly addresses the condition of black bondage. To all appearances, the young woman seen here represents a white captive. Except for her chains, she could pass for a conventional likeness of Venus, the classical goddess of love. As indicated by the inscription on the base of the statue, she is instead an octoroon—that is, an exceptionally light-skinned person of mixed race, technically defined as one-eighth black and the rest white.

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The condition was reached by gradual degrees of miscegenation, or racial mixing, until the complexion of an individual often became indistinguishable from a person of “pure” white ancestry. In race-conscious societies, the prospect of racial mixture could threaten the precarious stability of the dominant order. The position of the octoroon along the edge of this fragile divide afforded some degree of maneuverability, often termed “passing.” Before the abolition of slavery, however, such light-skinned mulattoes faced the even more likely prospect of a life in bondage.

This demure, pensive vision of miscegenation and its dire consequences was made by the popular British sculptor John Bell. Through artfully constructed layers of sentimentality and aesthetic contrivance emerges one of the primary justifications for the enslavement of a whole group of human beings: the notion of one drop of black blood, the “drop sinister,” by which a light-skinned person could be consigned to a life of bondage.

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At the time of its presentation at the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1868, Bell stood at the height of his career. His work typically mixed the conventional standards of classical form with the emotive pathos of contemporary romanticism. The combination was a formula for success among critics and laypeople alike, who had become accustomed to viewing works of art as outlets for their own emotional sensibilities.

The Octoroon quickly garnered popular and critical acclaim. Before long it was widely reproduced on a smaller scale as one of Minton’s ceramic Parian-ware figurines, as well as in bronze replicas. A stereo photograph of the original allowed even those of modest means to view it with a convincing illusion of depth.

The aesthetic effect of the figure is essentially theatrical, encouraging the strongly empathetic participation of the viewer with both form and meaning. In fact, the subject seems to have been suggested to Bell by the arrival on the London stage in 1861 of The Octoroon, a highly popular play first produced in New York two years earlier by the widely celebrated playwright Dion Boucicault.

The drama tells the moving story of Zoe, the mixed-race daughter of a rich Southern judge and plantation owner by his black paramour. With the judge’s death, Zoe loses his protection, and her situation becomes precarious. She faces the horrible prospect of being sold at auction, most likely to share the fate of her mother as the mistress of a rich white man. The evil McClosky desires her for himself, opposed by the sincere love for her by George, the heir to the family fortune. In the American version, the tale ends tragically with Zoe’s suicide as she realizes that any future with George as man and wife could never be. British audiences disliked this unhappy ending, and the play was rewritten with the more optimistic “happily ever after” possibility of their union in another, more tolerant land.

Bell’s own distilled response to the theme of miscegenation in the play seems to have evolved rather quickly. The Octoroon debuted in London just several months after the beginning of the Civil War. By 1863, the London Art Journal reported that Bell’s statue was “well under way,” though its formal exhibition took place only several years later, in 1868.

Devoid of any actual references to plot or the character’s identity, the figure stands naked, chained and ready for sale to the highest bidder. In Bell’s mind the sentimentality and clamor of the stage were elevated to a higher conceptual plane that confronted the viewer with the image of Zoe in her most vulnerable state. By extension, the work seems to invite the viewer to ponder the very nature of chattel slavery and its implacable determination by race, just as the issue was being so tempestuously decided in the United States.

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The stage provided the inspiration for Bell’s subject. For its form he turned to a another carved vision of abject captivity, the highly praised Greek Slave by the expatriate American artist Hiram Powers. The work had won instant acclaim for its creator and became the touchstone for the aesthetic representation of slavery in the imagination of the day. The Greek Slave depicted a white woman, however, not a person of mixed race.

The use of essentially the same body for both women only heightens the sense of irony for the situation of the octoroon, so close is she to normative whiteness. Narrative context is dispensed with to focus on the essential plight of the victim, a process often leavening compassion with a less chaste voyeurism.

Bell’s conflation of the carved simulacrum of the nude female slave with the theatrically inspired concept of the mixed-race woman glosses the reality of slavery with a more broadly nuanced commentary on the role of race in the self-definition of an entire culture. Around the statue coalesce concerns about racial mixing in the real world and its effect on both sides of the Atlantic. Those who could move beyond Bell’s sentimental conception of the tragic mulatto might have contemplated the wider implications of this degree of miscegenation within the dominant social structures of the time.

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A real-life example of the navigation within white American society by an octoroon woman is Julia Ann Chinn. During the early decades of the 19th century, she maintained an enduring liaison with the Kentucky politician Richard Mentor Johnson. Though she remained enslaved and unmarried, Julia bore him two daughters. Johnson openly acknowledged these children and provided the girls with a superior education and marriage to prominent white men. Perhaps not surprisingly, such informal mixed-race unions in the slave states occurred fairly often, making Zoe’s situation seem not so unusual after all.

In a far less theatrical sense, women in mixed-race relationships continued to suffer the combined opprobrium of state and society far into the 20th century. Landmark court cases in the Southern states eventually erased the legal proscription against such unions, but the legacy of Zoe’s predicament still casts its long shadow over the affairs of the heart.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.