August 2023

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier |

The Gaze of Frederick Douglas

Karren Alenier

In this time where opportunities (e.g., Affirmative Action) and matters of justice (e.g., voting rights) for African Americans are being eroded in the United States in what looks to be a continuation of the racism that sprang from the slavery that brought on the American Civil War, the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery has mounted an exhibition focused primarily on photographs of the celebrated Abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). The Steiny Road Poet visited One Life: Frederick Douglass on July 10, 2023.

The exhibition also put her in mind of Gertrude Stein's struggles to overcome her station as a woman and her ambition to make a contribution to mankind of extraordinary accomplishment.


Douglass was a bi-racial man, probably the offspring of Aaron Anthony, a Talbot County, Maryland, plantation manager or of Anthony's son-in-law Thomas Auld. Douglass' enslaved mother Harriet Bailey named her son Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. A ledger displayed in this exhibition and kept by Aaron Anthony (discovered in 1980 by biographer Dickson Preston) notes this child's name and birth year as 1818. Throughout his life, Douglass estimated 1817 as his birth year.

The exhibition tells the museum-goer that Douglass escaped slavery at the age of 20 and subsequently changed his name to Douglass.

Besides his many distinguished photographs, we see photographs of Anna Murray, the free Black woman who he married in 1838 and had five children with, and Helen Pitts, the white activist he married in 1884, two years after Anna's death.

Although there is a copy of his autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, there are few details in the extensive texts accompanying photographs and artifacts that answer questions like how he learned to read.

With a little research, Steiny discovered that Baltimore is where Frederick Bailey learned the alphabet from a sister-in-law to Thomas Auld. It is also where he met his future wife-to-be, Anna Murray. Once he learned the alphabet, Frederick Bailey was able to teach himself how to read. In the exhibition, we are told that in his first six years of freedom, he read Byron, Shakespeare, Emerson, and Milton. He appeared so learned that his audiences did not believe he had ever been a slave.


The takeaways from the exhibit are that Douglass had perfected the art of being a striking photographic subject. He dressed well, looked at the camera, and was able to hold that pose for the length of time it took in those early days of photography. He also counseled Abraham Lincoln on the eve of Lincoln's reelection to look straight at the camera. As a humble man,  Lincoln never looked into the camera, but he listened to Douglass' argument that doing so made an authoritative image that would help him win the election. Douglass was the leading male voice for women's suffrage in the United States. His influence on abolishing slavery and women's rights was substantial.


Like Douglass, Gertrude Stein also had an important connection to Baltimore which had a major impact on her adult life. Baltimore is where her maternal relatives had settled after immigrating from Europe. At sixteen and ward of her older brother Michael after their parents died, Gertrude and her sister Bertha were sent in 1892 to Baltimore to their Aunt Fanny Keyser Bachrach's home.  Fanny's husband David Bachrach was an established photographer who had his niece Gertrude sit for a coming-of-age "Gibbson Girl" photograph. Clearly Stein is cinched into a very tight corset to show her waist and emphasize her fulsome bust. She is not smiling and unlike Douglass, she is looking off to one side. She is a female object on display for what? Maybe a possible husband?

Except Stein left Baltimore to join her brother Leo at Harvard where she was able to earn a degree and return to Baltimore to study medicine at Johns Hopkins. Baltimore is where Stein worked in the Black community as an intern attending to obstetric patients.

Surely that early experience sitting for her photographer uncle set Stein up for the portrait Pablo Picasso painted of her. In this well-known work, Stein leans in aggressively toward the viewer. Her posture unsettled Picasso. Stein claims she did "eighty or ninety sittings" for Picasso's portrait of her. While she is not looking at the viewer, her large body leaning in toward the viewer accomplishes the same authority.


One Life: Frederick Douglass opened June 16, 2023, and runs through April 21, 2024, at the Smithsonian's Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.



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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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©2023 Karren Alenier
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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