About this artwork
This arresting depiction of an enslaved man constituted a timely abolitionist appeal in the years leading up to the British Emancipation Act of 1833. The subject raises his head and eyes toward the heavens in an echo of the conventional poses for Christian saints and martyrs. John Philip Simpson thus used familiar iconography to appeal to the sentimentality and supposed moral superiority of wealthy white viewers with the requisite power to sway public policy. But the deeply moving pose also reflects the artistic contribution of the man who modeled for the figure, now identified as Ira Aldridge, a free-born American actor famous for playing the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello. His performance in Thomas Morton’s musical drama The Slave may have been the immediate inspiration for Simpson’s painting. Aldridge was also renowned for his persuasive speeches for the abolitionist cause.
- John Philip Simpson
- The Captive Slave (Ira Aldridge)
- Oil on canvas
- 127 × 101.5 cm (50 × 40 in.)
- Purchased with funds provided by Mary Winton Green, Dan and Sara Green Cohan, Howard and Lisa Green and Jonathan and Brenda Green, in memory of David Green