Samuel J. Miller
Cased half-plate daguerreotype
Plate: 14 x 10.6 cm (5 1/2 x 4 1/8 in.); mat opening: 12.1 x 8.8 cm (4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in.); plate in closed case: 15.2 x 12 x 1.4 cm (6 x 4 3/4 x 1/2 in.); plate in open case: 15.2 x 24 x 2 cm (6 x 9 1/2 x 3/4 in.)
Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment, 1996.433
Frederick Douglass, the sitter in this early type of photograph or daguerreotype, escaped slavery and rose to fame during the mid-19th century as a prominent abolitionist, orator, newspaper publisher, human-rights activist, and diplomat. Six feet tall with strong features and a mass of hair, Douglass sat for several daguerreotypes early in his career. Samuel J. Miller, whose name is on the inside of the velvet case, opened a daguerreotype shop in Akron, Ohio. On one of his numerous lecture tours, Douglass probably passed through the Akron area and took a moment to have his portrait made. This image, recovered from a shoebox of abolitionist memorabilia, is one of his most striking photographic portraits. He presents himself as a strong and stern figure. Sitters for such photographs were able to exert a measure of control over their own representation, something they were not able to do for a painted portrait. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson loved the daguerreotype for this reason, calling it a democratic style of painting because, as he explained, "the artist stands aside and lets you paint yourself."
A mulatto born on a Maryland plantation in February 1818, Douglass made a break for freedom at the age of 20 via the Underground Railroad. Once he found his way to New England, he began speaking and publishing in favor of the abolitionist cause. At heart a believer in nonviolent protest, Douglass was nonetheless attracted to those who advocated revolt against slave owners. This position shocked the white abolitionists who had previously supported his career. The suppressed anger in the Art Institute’s portrait suggests Douglass’s struggle in the face of these events.