Douglass claims: Negro Portraits by White Artists are Never Impartial


We shall venture one remark, which we have never heard expressed before, and which will, perhaps, be set down to the account of our negro vanity; and it may be, not unjustly so, but we have presented it for what it may be worth.  It is this:  negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists.  It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features.  And the reason is obvious.  Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted  a theory respecting the distinctive features of negro physiognomy.  We have heard many white persons say that ‘negroes look all alike’, and that they could not distinguish between the old and the young.  They associate with the negro face, high cheek bones, distended nostril, depressed nose, thick lips, and retreating forehead. This theory, impressed strongly on the mind of an artist, exercises a powerful influence over his pencil, and very naturally leads him to distort and exaggerate those peculiarities, even when they scarcely exist in the original.  The temptation to make the likeness of the negro, rather than of the man, is very strong; and often leads the artist, as well as the player, to ‘overstep the modesty of nature.’   There is the greatest variety of form and feature among us, and there is seldom one face to be found which has all the features usually attributed to the negro; and there are those from which these marks of African descent (while their color remains unchanged,) have disappeared entirely.  ‘I am black, but comely,’ is as true now, as it was in the days of Solomon. Perhaps we should not be more impartial than our white brothers, should we attempt to picture them.  We should be as likely to get their lips too thin, noses too sharp and pinched up, their hair too lank and lifeless, and their faces altogether too cadaverous.      Frederick Douglass.

   (Liberator,  April 20, 1849, pg 2)