"SOJOURNER TRUTH STRIDES THROUGH AMERICAN HISTORY LARGER THAN LIFE": RARE VINTAGE 1864 CARTE-DE-VISITE PHOTOGRAPH OF SOJOURNER TRUTH—HER "MOST FAMOUS PORTRAIT"
TRUTH, Sojourner. Carte-de-visite photograph. (Washington, D.C.: 1864). Vintage albumen print mounted on card stock, measuring approximately 2-1/2 by 4 inches with printed caption. $12,500.
Rare vintage 1864 carte-de-visite photographic portrait of Sojourner Truth, her favorite and "most famous" portrait, the iconic image personally chosen by her as the engraving and cover image for the 1875 edition of her Narrative, a handsome portrait containing the distinctive printed caption below the image and printed copyright on the card verso.
"A legend in her own time, Truth's indomitable will has won her a permanent place in American history" (Blockson 29). That crucial status notably includes her early embrace of photography as both assertion of identity and a political tool. "Like Frederick Douglass, she knew how important its invention was for a society attempting to redefine the status of Black men and women." At the outbreak of the Civil War, Truth also seized on it to help support her lecture tours and her work with freed slaves, often relying on "the sale of her cartes-de-visite [CDVs], her songs and her books" to support her activism. As in so much of her life, Truth became "the strategic author of her public self and her photographic portrait" (Grigsby, Enduring Truths, 12, 59, 15).
In 1864, in particular, her CDVs began to appear "with a caption, her name, and a copyright: 'I Sell the Shadow to support the Substance,' Sojourner Truth' and 'Entered according to the act of Congress in the year 1864, by SOJOURNER TRUTH….' The textual additions to Truth's [CDV] cards occurred all at once. Any card that has her name and caption has her copyright, and the inverse is also true… Even before her copyright was filed in Detroit on February 16, 1864, Truth had made public her intention to make new copyright photographs in a letter dated February 3 and published in the Anti-Slavery Standard… It is significant that she had announced the decision before the fact in a letter intended for publication. In advance of the copyright, she was making a claim to her property rights to her photographs" (Grigsby, 63-64).
This rare CDV contains her "most famous portrait." It was this image that she later chose for the engraving on the title page and cover of the 1875 edition of her Narrative (1850). What sets this iconic portrait apart from others "is Truth's calm facial expression… we might say self-possession… In this most famous portrait, her head is slightly tilted, but her gaze is level and straightforward, her mouth is unsmiling but not stern." As in all her "captioned portraits made immediately after the filing of the copyright in 1864… Truth offers herself as a model for an emancipated, prosperous African American future, a model worthy of emulation." Her choice to be seen with her knitting is also deliberate, in that, during the Civil War, "knitting acquired new, patriotic connotations. No longer merely a feminine domestic art, knitting had become a public sign…to serve the cause." Both the nation and Truth "associated knitting with industry and advancement… [it] represents an insistence on her 'making'—her touch, her manual labor." From its very beginning photography was seen, by Henry Fox Talbot and others, as a "shadow." Truth, as well, "used the word 'shadow' to refer to photographs, not only in her caption but in her daily speech." In this portrait Truth uses knitting as an action that both uses and defies that "shadow" by affirming her self-created identity—the "substance" of her caption, "I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance" (Grigsby, 73-88).With this portrait, as in so many aspects of her legacy, "Sojourner Truth strides through American history larger than life" (New York Times).
Image clear and defined, a fine photographic portrait of one of America's most inspiring and influential women.