Frederick Douglass became the most influential African American of the nineteenth century by turning his life into a testimony on the evils of slavery and the redemptive power of freedom. After he escaped from bondage in 1838, Douglass quickly emerged as an outspoken advocate for equality and abolition. Aware of the power of telling one’s own story, he frequently spoke about his life, published three genre-defining autobiographies, and founded the influential newspaper, The North Star, in 1847. Douglass also posed for countless photographs, which he considered less susceptible to artists’ racial prejudices.
This painting was likely based on the engraved frontispiece of Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), a gripping account of his struggle for freedom. In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass went on to address the psychology of slavery and the racism that continued to define the lives of the newly free.