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.)