"FREEDOM FIGHTER, STEELY VISIONARY, WISE PROPHET AND ELDER STATESMAN": VERY SCARCE SILKSCREEN PORTRAIT OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, BASED ON AN 1881 PHOTOGRAPH, ONE OF ONLY 250 SIGNED BY ARTIST BEN SHAHN
SHAHN, Ben. Frederick Douglass III. (Washington, D.C.: 1965). Original silkscreen print (16-3/4 by 21-3/4 inches). Matted and framed, entire piece measures 21 by 25 inches. $2600.
Original large 1965 silkscreen print of Frederick Douglass, number 222 in a series of only 250 signed and numbered by artist Ben Shahn, based on a cabinet card photograph by Charles Milton Bell, whose 1881 portrait of Douglass became the "engraved frontispiece for a printing of Life and Times (1882)." Shahn, who used his art to express the "indestructibility of the spirit of man," here honors Douglass' lifelong command of his own portraits as a weapon in "one the great battles in American history—the battle between racist stereotypes and dignified self-possession." A beautiful print handsomely framed.
Ben Shahn, whose family fled pogroms in Lithuania for America, became a founding father of social realist art with his early paintings of Sacco and Vanzetti. They established a theme "which Shahn regarded as characteristic of his work, the 'indestructibility of the spirit of man'" (Kenneth Prescott). Shahn also achieved renown as a photographer who is ranked alongside Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, and it was Shahn's skill as both artist and photographer that also links him to Frederick Douglass—"the most photographed man in 19th-century America" (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.).
Douglass used photography to send "a message to the world that he had as much claim to citizenship, with the rights of equality before the law, as his white peers." The deliberate images of his portraits assert a keen awareness of "the public identity he was crafting… He went so far as to say that 'the moral and social influence of pictures' was more important in shaping national culture than 'the making of its laws'" (Stauffer, Trodd and Bernier, Picturing Frederick Douglass, xvi-xvii). That spirit is shared by these portraits Shahn created when he focused "on the civil rights struggle in a characteristically personal way. He completed four drawings of Douglass… [and] gave permission to the Museum of African Art in Washington to reproduce and sell a portfolio of these drawings to benefit the museum's Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History," signing and numbering each silkscreen print of black ink and burnt sienna in a limited series of 250 prints (Conrad, "Ben Shahn," 80-82). The Institute gifted many of these prints to museums, including the Smithsonian and Harvard Art Museum.
Shahn based this exceptional portrait, known as Frederick Douglass III, on a cabinet card photograph (circa 1881) by Washington, D.C. photographer Charles Milton Bell, whose image of Douglass became the "engraved frontispiece for a printing of Life and Times (1882)… Douglass used this photograph in his letterhead when sending out letters in support of particular congressional candidates in 1894," and more recently a community group "put Bell's Douglass on a prototype of a 20-dollar bank note in 1999, intended for use in a Black Chicago neighborhood." In Shahn's 1965 portraits, he honors "three central themes" that Douglass articulated in his portraits. "First, Douglass almost never showed a smile… [refuting] racist caricatures of Blacks as happy slaves and servants. Second, he presented himself in dress, pose and expression as a dignified and respectable citizen. Third, his visual persona continually evolved, which undermined the foundations of slavery and racism." Shahn's portraits skillfully capture the way Douglass' photographed images evolved "across the years as a freedom fighter, steely visionary, wise prophet and elder statesman… Douglass' awareness of the possibilities of imagery to shape public opinion, coupled with his ability to control and circulate his own image, shaped one the great battles in American history—the battle between racist stereotypes and dignified self-possession" (Stauffer et al, 112, 60, xxv-viii). Number 222 of 250 prints numbered and signed by Ben Shahn below the image on the recto. Issued same year as unnumbered, unsigned prints.
A fine signed print. Handsomely framed.