• Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Arabella Chapman: Portraits

    We prepared to study the Chapman albums by examining a variety of black women’s early portraits. Most interesting were the choices women made about pose, clothing, and props. These details reflected how they hoped to be seen and brought women like Arabella into a tradition of black women’s portraiture. Here, Katie Diekman contrasts Arabella’s portrait to those of two better-remembered women, Phillis Wheatley and Sojourner Truth.

     My favorite image from Arabella Chapman’s photo album is the portrait of Arabella herself. We studied other women’s portraits, many of them depicting women of great acclaim, such as Phillis Wheatley and Sojourner Truth. Often the women were styled very similarly: Modestly dressed, a cap or bonnet covering their hair, a shawl draping their shoulders, and plain dresses of simple material.

    Arabella’s portrait has a different quality that captures her ideas about respectable womanhood at the end of the nineteenth- century. She looks directly into the camera, almost straight at the viewer. The background is bare except for a chair. In the lower left hand corner there is a table and Arabella there rests her left elbow with her hand curled to her cheek. While we cannot say that Arabella was familiar with the portraits of Wheatley and Truth (shown here,) we do see echoes of their poses: Wheatley’s hand to cheek and Truth’s direct gaze

    What I like most is how her gaze conveys Arabella’s sense of security with her place in life. She chose a dress made of rich fabric, with sleeves and collar embellished with lace. Her intricate earrings and broach, and cross necklace appear to be made of gold. Her hair has waves and is carefully styled. She can afford some luxuries and with these details Arabella tells us about her social status.

    Unlike other portraits we’ve seen, Arabella’s was not created for public view or publicity purposes. The one-of-a-kind tintype portrait could not be reproduced, restricting their circulation. Her portrait was seen by people closest to Arabella.

    — Katie Diekman

    Sources: Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (W.W. Norton, 1996); Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (Penguin Classics, 2001.)

3 Responsesso far.

  1. I am a big fan of all your work on this wonderful, evolving project. It is an inspiration for those of us piloting lab and hands-on research courses. My questions about this image of Arabella Chapman are: Is the sitter holding a piece of chalk or writing implement in her hand? Do you have knowledge or theories about what her chosen broach symbolized? Do you know what photography studios the Chapman family may have used? Many thanks for all your research and creativity.

    • Clayton Lewis says:

      Thank you for your interest in this project. We appreciate your enthusiasm! A close examination of the tintype of Arabella Chapman shows that what looks to be an object in her hand is actually the white space between her thumb and her white collar. The broach doesn’t seem to have a meaning that I can detect, although she is also wearing a small crucifix on a light chain.

      The photographers of many of the photos are identified (and noted on this website with the photos) and include some of the top commercial studios of Albany, unfortunately this particular photo is unattributed. I have an analysis of the photographers in the works that I’ll post soon.

    • Martha Jones says:

      This tintype has no photographer’s stamp. Generally, the technology did not allow for the photographer to imprint his mark on the image (as was typical of cartes-de-visite.) Most of the tintypes in the Chapman albums have no clues about who the photographer might have been.

      There is an important exception and this is for photos taken during the Civil War. Those have on the verso a stamp (proof of tax paid) and handwritten is the name of the photographer and a date.

      We have two examples of stamped tintypes in the Chapman albums, presumably taken during the war. The first is that of Arabella’s brother William (2:23) and the second is of Arabella herself (2:30.) The stamps tell us the name of the photograph studio (Wordley and VanDerzee) and the year is 1864.

      These details have always intrigued me because of their association with Albany photographer Cornelius Vanderzee. The name immediately brings to my mind another photographer by that name, James Vanderzee, who was among the best remembered of early 20th century photographers. Cornelius Vanderzee was from Albany and a white man. James was from Berkshire County and an African American. Could there be a connection between these two photographers of the same family name?

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