News | June 20, 2023

Frederick Douglass Writings and Portraits in New Smithsonian Exhibition

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Portrait of Frederick Douglass by an unidentified artist. Oil on canvas, c. 1845

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery's exhibition One Life: Frederick Douglass explores the life and legacy of one of the 19th century’s most influential writers, speakers and intellectuals. 

The exhibition will showcase more than three dozen objects, including: 

  • the ledger documenting Douglass’ birth in February 1818
  • a pamphlet of his What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? oration
  • two of his three autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself
  • a letter from Douglass to Lincoln
  • portraits of activists in Douglass’ circle, such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth
  • portraits by the prominent Black photographers Augustus Washington and Cornelius Marion Battey
  • portraits of the Black leaders Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, all of whom carried on his legacy

Douglass was a radical activist who devoted his life to abolitionism and rights for all. This exhibition shows the intimate relationship between art and protest through prints, photographs and ephemera, guest curated by John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and consulting curator Ann Shumard, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior curator of photographs.

“Frederick Douglass was the preeminent African American voice of the 19th century and among the nation’s greatest orators, writers and picture-makers,” said Stauffer. “Born into slavery, he became a leading abolitionist, civil rights activist and the most photographed American of the 19th-century, a public face of the nation. This comprehensive exhibition includes objects from all phases of his life as a way to highlight the power of his remarkable impact. It explores his friendship with President Abraham Lincoln, for example, as well as his enduring influence on artists and activists in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Douglass was born on the Eastern shore of Maryland in 1818. Having escaped slavery in 1838, he traveled to New York, where he married Anna Murray. After the couple moved to Massachusetts, he began attending abolitionist meetings. Douglass went on to publish three autobiographies and a novella, deliver thousands of speeches and edit the longest continually running Black newspaper of the 19th century, The North Star (later Frederick Douglass’ Paper and Douglass’ Monthly). As a political insider and policy influencer during the Civil War, he befriended and advised President Abraham Lincoln. Douglass changed traditional rules of representation by explaining how “true art” could be an engine of social change. 

The exhibition runs through April 21, 2024.