About this artwork
A studio assistant to the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence and a portraitist in his own right, John Simpson painted this compelling image of a man in shackles as a powerful abolitionist statement. Simpson’s model was the freeborn American Ira Aldridge, a celebrated Shakespearean actor and the first black man to play Othello on the London stage. The Captive Slave highlights his gifts as a tragic actor as well as responding to—and even transcending—the historical moment to which it belongs.
Compositionally, Simpson likely drew inspiration from Christian iconography of suffering and martyred saints. Here, Aldridge’s expressive upward gaze—modeled on representations of saintly devotion—conveys a yearning for freedom. Despite his manacled hands, Aldridge holds his body upright, and his loose, flame-red garment lends him a nobility that belies his role as a slave in the galley of a ship from Africa. Simpson conveys the rough texture of the robe through his loose, bold brushstrokes, a technique his teacher Lawrence used to different effect for his depictions of luxurious silks and satins. The glint of white in the eye was a distinguishing characteristic of Simpson’s portraiture, and his artful application of highlights is noticeable on the shackles and fingernails.
In 1827, when The Captive Slave was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the accompanying catalogue included William Cowper’s antislavery poem "Charity" (1782). By the mid-1820s, the moral and political debates surrounding abolitionism were at the forefront of public discourse in England as well as in the rest of Europe and America. Combining late Romanticism with the new interest in social realism, The Captive Slave conveys the passion of Simpson’s abolitionist beliefs at a critical juncture in English history.
- John Philip Simpson
- The Captive Slave
- Oil on canvas
- 127 × 101.5 cm (50 × 40 in.)
- Restricted gift of Mary Winton Green, Dan and Sara Green Cohan, Howard and Lisa Green and Jonathan and Brenda Green, in memory of David Green