by Paul H. D. Kaplan. Penn State University Press, June 2020. 312 p. ill. ISBN 9780271083858 (h/c), $94.95.
Reviewed September 2020
Kathy Edwards, Librarian, Emery A. Gunnin Architecture Library, Clemson University, email@example.com
This is a beautifully illustrated work of meticulous scholarship, one clearly intended for an academic audience. Kaplan, a professor of art history at SUNY Purchase, sets out to assess “the role of art in constructing as well as challenging the norms of black identity” (223) in transatlantic culture and society, from the decades immediately prior to the U.S. civil war to the end of Reconstruction. The perspectives he examines are entirely American and exclusively those of elites, both Black and White, as art consumers, cultural influencers, and artists themselves.
The term “contraband guides” derives from Samuel Clemens’ account in Innocents Abroad (1869) of his encounter in an art salon in Venice with a refined young Black man, the son of a formerly enslaved African American couple, whose sophisticated knowledge of European art and fluency in multiple languages flummoxes Clemens’ racial preconceptions. “Contraband’” was a Civil War-era legal term that defined escaped slaves (as many African Americans in Europe were) as “illegal property.”
Kaplan begins with the racial attitudes expressed by Americans abroad - in published travel accounts, letters, and diaries - in the decades prior to the Civil War, specifically their reactions to European artworks depicting Black figures. These Americans ranged from southern plantation owners to fervent abolitionists, and included such luminaries as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, Charles Sumner, Margaret Fuller, Charles Eliot Norton, and John Ruskin.
Two subsequent chapters that focus on specific artists and their depictions of Blackness at home and abroad suffer from the author’s occasional pursuit of artistic precedents and assumptions that fail to convince.
Frederick Douglass does not emerge as an influential figure in this narrative until the fourth and fifth chapters, which examine the role of art in depicting and shaping the wartime and Reconstruction-era African American experience. This is the book’s strongest section, documenting the influence of urban Black elites within the African American community before, during, and after the war: their promotion of the classical fine arts as a means of racial uplift; financial support for Black artists demonstrated in their own art collections; the social and political connections they enlisted in the 1870s toward the unrealized goal of a national exposition showcasing African American arts and technology; and their determined advocacy for monumental works commemorating emancipation and memorializing African American Union soldiers and heroes.
Kaplan bases his analyses on a prodigious amount of research, and the narratives he distills from an impressive array of primary and secondary sources cohere into a history that constitutes a significant contribution to scholarship. Illustrations are profuse and effectively advance the author’s arguments. The book’s scholarly apparatus consists of endnotes, a bibliography, and an index that is, itself, a paragon of the indexer’s art.