In Brief

A Rediscovered Portrait of Harriet Tubman Is Unveiled

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will display a new portrait of the legendary abolitionist that “adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist.”

Harriet Tubman in a carte de visite photograph (c. 1868-69), albumen and silver on photographic paper on card mount, 3 11/16 × 2 1/4 in. (9.4 × 5.7 cm) (image), 3 15/16 × 2 7/16 in. (10 × 6.2 cm) (image and mount), (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress; Photograph by Benjamin F. Powelson; Owned by Emily Howland)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NAAMHC) in Washington, DC has revealed that it has acquired a previously unknown portrait of Harriet Tubman and that it will display the photograph in the museum’s entryway from March 25 through March 31.

“Other iconic portraits present [Tubman] as either stern or frail,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director, in a statement. “This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. Sitting with her arm casually draped across the back of a parlor chair, she’s wearing an elegant bodice and a full skirt with a fitted waist.”

Two years ago, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress jointly acquired a photo album from the Quaker schoolteacher Emily Howland. According to the museum, this album was compiled for Howland as a gift and includes 49 images taken circa 1860s; it includes a more commonly known Tubman portrait taken later in life and images of Senator Charles Sumner, woman’s activist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, organizer Samuel Ely, William Henry Channing, Col. C.W. Folsom, Charles Dickens, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to the U.S. Congress.

After the acquisition, the Library of Congress has had its conservators carefully reattach the leather album and clean the photographs to ensure long-term preservation. Catalogers have also studied the other individuals within the images and have identified all but three sitters.

Researchers believe that the photography of Tubman is a carte de visite portrait dating from around 1868–69, when the abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor would have been in her 40s.

“Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than we realize. This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist — it helps to humanize such an iconic figure,” Bunch said.

The Howland album is the museum’s first acquisition to be shown in its entry hall, Heritage Hall. On March 29, NMAAHC will hold its first public seminar on photography, called Pictures with Purpose: A Symposium on Early African American Photography. After its brief presentation in the museum’s entryway, the album will be relocated to the Slavery and Freedom exhibition currently on view.

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