Slavery Identified in Art Museums

What do we see when we look at a painted or sculpted portrait? Do we see personality? Clothing? Fashion? Setting? Do we read wall labels? If When we do, we generally learn who the artist is (if the artist is known), when she or he made the work, and what the work is made of. And if the museum is doing its job, we might learn more about object in an illuminating text panel that often directs what we make of what wen see. But what do we see in that work of art when the museum contextualizes it within a picture of its time and place of origin — an America when a significant population of Americans were enslaved Africans? The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is rewriting its labels.

John Singleton Copley, “Lucretia Chandler” (1763), oil on canvas, Copley was one of the Boston area’s most prominent painters and painted this portrait of the daughter of a wealthy New England judge named Lucretia. The new signage at the Worcester Art Museum now notes that Chandler’s father, Judge John Chandler II (1683-1762), owned two slaves that he left to family members upon his death (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)