About This Artwork

John Philip Simpson
English, 1782–1847

The Captive Slave, 1827

Oil on canvas
127 x 101.5 cm (50 x 40 in.)

Restricted gift of Mary Winton Green, Dan and Sara Green Cohan, Howard and Lisa Green and Jonathan and Brenda Green, in memory of David Green, 2008.188

In 1827, when the English portrait painter John Simpson exhibited this heroic image of a manacled man, he was making a bold statement. The slave trade was still a controversial moral and political issue, and it would not be fully resolved in England until six years later, when Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. With Captive Slave, Simpson dared to take on this contentious subject. As the model for his “slave,” the artist posed Ira Aldridge, the free-born son of a lay preacher in New York, who would go on to have an important career on the London stage. Here Aldridge’s expressive upward gaze conveys a yearning for freedom in an image that both speaks to the historical moment and transcends it.

— Permanent collection label

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