Lot 653    

Important Long-Lost Quarter Plate Daguerreotype of John Brown, the Abolitionist, by the African American Daguerreotype Artist, August Washington
2007, Western & Historic Americana, Dec 6th and 7th

“Augustus Washington, an artist of fine taste and perception, is numbered among the most successful Daguerreotypists in Hartford, Connecticut. His establishment is said to be visited daily by large numbers of the citizens of all classes.” --Martin Delany, 1852

“Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!” --John Brown, 1837

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” --John Brown, on the day of his hanging, 1859

An oversized plate, housed in a pressed leather case, with a simple purple silk pad, stamped in black Washington Gallery. Hartford CT inside a ribbon surround, and below in block letters Washington Galery[sic]. Hartford, CT. The image framed by a heavy stippled brass, arch-topped mat; the preserver likely from a later 1860s-70s image. The plate itself marked "O" in one corner.

Provenance: Descended directly in the family of John Brown. Line of Descent: John Brown's daughter, Annie Brown; to her granddaughter Bertha; thence to her grandson, Darell Robinson, and his wife Maxine, as a wedding present in 1949.

Along with another image, likely taken during the same sitting, this plate is probably the first daguerreotype taken of abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) and was almost certainly taken during the same sitting as the now famous image of Brown curated at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery (Shumard 1999). Long-lost to history, this portrait, along with the Portrait Gallery plate, was made by the African American daguerreotypist Augustus Washington (ca. 1820/21-1875) in his Hartford, Connecticut studio in 1846-47. In the present plate, a self-assured and clean-shaven Brown stares intently and directly at the viewer with steely, blue-gray eyes and the hint of a knowing smile as the left side of his mouth upturns slightly and puffs out the cheek near his hawk-like nose. Everything about him demonstrates strong conviction, discipline, and the will to make things happen: a lean and sinewy body; close-cropped, full dark hair graying at the temples; broad, lined forehead; large, prominent ears; deep furrows between shaggy eyebrows; gaunt, wrinkled, rectangular visage; thin lips; firm, set jaw; and crossed arms. Brown had an imposing frame, just shy of six feet. Self-described as belligerent and deceitful in his youth, he grew into a deeply religious character who insisted on constant prayer in his home, although he was too nonconformist to fit well into any church group. A man of business, Brown is dressed in a high-collared, white shirt and plain dark suit. His thin black tie is knotted at the neck, the long tails tucked down into his half-unbuttoned vest. The dark background and heavy stippled brass, arch-topped mat focus our attention on the crisp details of Brown’s commanding mien, lit slightly more from the right.

In the other Washington studio portrait, Brown wears the same outfit and raises his right hand as if taking an oath while he grasps a standard in his right hand. This is the flag of the S.P.W., the “Subterranean Pass Way,” Brown’s militant counterpart to the Underground Railroad In that composition, the lower face and right hand are slightly out of focus with movement as Brown lifts his arm and nods his head forward a bit. It exhibits considerable damage; vertical and horizontal “wipes” mar the plate in numerous areas. Both daguerreotypes are house in pressed leather cases, each with a simple purple silk pad, stamped in black italics “Washington Gallery. / Hartford CT” and below in block letters “WASHINGTON GALERY [sic]/ HARTFORD, CT.”

The version offered here descended directly from the family of John Brown, passing from his daughter to her granddaughter, and to her grandson as a wedding present in 1949. It has been known to exist since at least 1978, when Pfister (1978:300-301) found mention of it while preparing his ground-breaking exhibit Facing the Light Historic American Portrait Daguerreotypes. This image offered here was first reproduced in New England Magazine, N.S. 10 (May 1894): 273 and captioned “From a daguerreotype taken about 1850, in possession of Frank B. Sanborn.” It later circulated as a cabinet photo by the Brady-Handy studio; one version is reproduced in Eve Marie Inger, John Brown, His Soul Goes Marching On (New York, 1969), p. 51. Presumably, after Sanborn published the image it was returned to the Brown family and has been in their possession until the present.

In a March 27, 1885 letter to Sanborn, John Brown, Jr. mentions both the Washington Gallery portraits:

In regard to the daguerreotypes [sic] you refer to, I have them both. The one with flag, (which appears to be only of white or light colored cloth of some kind without stars, stripes or emblems of any sort), was taken by a Colored daguereian artist at Hartford, named Washington. I doubt if you would consider it a good one. The other is no better perhaps, and is considerably defaced. It presents however the opposite side of the face which the Boston artist in Statuary wrote me he had failed to to [sic] find in any pictures of Father. I will send these pictures to you if you wish. (John Brown /Boyd B. Stutler Collection Database; part of the West Virginia Memory Project)

In addition to the Augustus Washington plates, only five other daguerreotypes of Brown are known and all but one date about a decade later. A quarter plate, unattributed but possibly from a Boston studio in 1856-57, is in the Massachusetts Historical Society, donated by Amos A. Lawrence in 1884, to whom it was given by Brown. Josiah J. Hawes made carte-de-visite derivative versions of that image. There is a sixth plate, possibly from the Whipple and Black studio in Boston from the same winter, in the Boston Athenaeum, donated by James Redpath, to whom it was given by Brown. The other three plates are not located. One unattributed portrait, possibly from the winter of 1856-57, is known via a graphic derivative reproduced in Magazine of American History, Vol. 29 (1893): 305. Another, supposedly ca. 1846-50, is known via reproduction as the frontispiece to Richard D. Webb, Life and Letters of Captain John Brown (London, 1861), and the clothing is similar to that in the former composition. Still another, by Washington, depicts the SPW standard and Brown standing with his hand on the shoulder of Thomas Thomas, an African American man.

At the time of this portrait, Brown had a wool brokerage in Springfield, Massachusetts ca. 1846-48. This venture, like all of his businesses (fifteen of them in four states by 1852) would fail because of Brown’s obsession to end slavery violently. He wanted to use the Allegheny Mountains as a base from which to launch armed attacks on slave-holding properties and take liberated slaves north to freedom. Brown was active in abolitionist circles both in Springfield and Hartford, Connecticut, where Washington’s studio was located, only about twenty-five miles away. By 1848 Brown was only intermittently in Springfield and had closed down the wool brokerage business by 1850. In 1856, at the head of a small militia that included four of his sons (he had twenty children), Brown killed five pro-slavery supports with sabers in Pottawatomie, Kansas. In Boston in the winter of 1857-58 and again in 1859 to solicit arms and funds for the defense of Kansas’s free-soil homesteads, Brown he was greeted as a military hero. He was a veteran of the Black Jack skirmish and a martyr of the fight at Osawatomie, where southern raiders had killed one of his sons. Influential men such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker were convinced of his virtue. Calling himself a “special angel of death,” (Oates, p. 173) Brown’s hatred of slavery led to his failed raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (modern-day West Virginia) in 1859 and his execution for treason that year. Lincoln declared that Brown was a “misguided fanatic.” In 1864, Brown wife Mary Ann and some of their remaining children moved to Red Bluff, California.

It was natural for Brown to be attracted to Washington, a fellow ardent abolitionist and a preeminent African American daguerreotypist. The son of a South Asian mother and a man who had been a slave in Virginia, Washington was born free in Trenton, New Jersey. As a teenager he read antislavery literature and attended abolitionist meetings, and vowed “to become a scholar, a teacher, and a useful man” (Shumard, p. 2). In the late 1830s and early 1840s Washington attended several colleges, including Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire, and Dartmouth College, with some abolitionist assistance. He supported himself with daguerreotypy, taking portraits of Dartmouth faculty and many of the citizens in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 1844 Washington moved to Hartford, home to many reform activities, and taught at the North African School for two years. He then operated a daguerreotype studio there ca. 1846-48, resuming business in 1850. Among his prestigious sitters were abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and members of Hartford’s elite, such as poet Lydia Sigourney, jurist and insurance company executive Eliphalet Adams Bulkeley, and his wife, son, and niece. In 1851 Washington declared in the New-York Daily Tribune that is black Americans were “ever [to] find a home on earth for the development of their manhood and intellect it [would] first be in Liberia or some other part of Africa.” Two years later he and his family immigrated to Monrovia, where he daguerreotyped Liberian senators; these images are now in the Library of Congress. By 1858 Washington seems to have abandoned daguerreotypy in favor of farming a sugar plantation.

Just about when Washington daguerreotyped Brown, Frederick Douglass visited the white abolitionist and described his dominant personality vividly:

I was not long in company with the master of this house before I discovered that he was indeed the master of it, and was likely to become mine too if I stayed long enough with him…His wife believed in him, and his children observed him with reverence. Whenever he spoke his words commanded earnest attention. His arguments…seemed to convince all; his appeals touched all, and his will impressed all. Certainly I never felt myself in the presence of a stronger religious influence than while in this man’s house. In person he was lean, strong, sinewy…built for times of trouble and fitted to grapple with the flintiest hardships…a figure straight and symmetrical as a mountain pine…His hair was coarse, strong, slightly gray and closely trimmed, and grew low on his forehead…His eyes were bluish-grey, and in conversation they were full of light and fire. --The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York, 1962; reprint o the 1892 edition), p. 272.

In one of the earliest known images of Brown, Washington has succeeded in capturing the evangelical character and stubborn rigidity of an independent-minded loner. Both Brown’s pious and militant nature are evident in this striking portrait. His was an anxious, restless, ferocious zealot’s soul.


Augustus Washington

Delany, Martin Robinson. The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852; reprint, New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1968).

Johnson, Carol. “Faces of Freedom: Portraits from the American Colonization Society Collection,” The Daguerreian Annual, 1996 (Pittsburgh: The Daguerreian Society, 1997): 266-68.

Pfister, Harold Francis. Facing the Light: Historic American Portrait Daguerreotypes. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1978.

Shumard, Ann. A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington, African American Daguerreotypist. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1999.

Washington, Augustus. “African Colonization—By a Man of Color,” New-York Daily Tribune (letter to the editors)(July 10, 1851): 7.

White, David O. “Augustus Washington, Black Daguerreotypist of Hartford,” Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 39, no. 1 (January, 1974): 14-19.

John Brown
Chowder, Ken. "The Father of American Terrorism," American Heritage (2000) 51(1): 81+.

DeCaro, Jr., Louis A. John Brown--The Cost of Freedom: Selections from His Life & Letters. New York: International Publishers, 2007.

DeCaro, Louis A. Jr. "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: New YOrk University Press, 2002.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Goodrich, Thomas War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861. Mechanicsburg (PA): Stackpole Books, 1998.

Malin, James. John Brown & the Legend of Fifty-Six. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1942.

Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union. 2 vols. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1947.

Nudelman, Franny. John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War. Chapel Hill (NC): University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970.

Oates, Stephen B. Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

Peterson, Merrill D. John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville (VA): University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Renehan, Edward J. The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. New YOrk: Crown Publishers, 1995.

Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006.

Ruchames, Louis, ed. A John Brown Reader: The Story of John Brown in His Own Words, in the Words of Those who Knew Him. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1959.

Sanborn, Franklin. The Life and Letters of John Brown Cedar Rapids: Iowa Torch Press, 1910.

Scott, Otto. The Secret Six: John Brown and The Abolitionist Movement. New York: New York Times Books, 1979.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Plea for Captain John Brown. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910.

Theresa Leininger-Miller, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Art History
University of Cincinnati

Plate not sealed when consigned, though about three quarters of the original newsprint seal were present in the rear of the case; the preserver has likely been replaced; it does not match The cover glass was washed, and the mat and plate were then temporarily resealed with filmoplast. The plate with a widely space "wipe" across Brown's face, and with scattered spotting, and mold spidering. Case split at hinge.
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