Enhanced by a lustrous black patina, the Art Museum’s bronze of "The Freedman" is among the earliest known castings of this work by John Quincy Adams Ward. Born in Urbana, Ohio, Ward served an apprenticeship from 1849 to 1856 in the New York studio of Henry Kirke Brown. Brown encouraged him to cast aside the stale neoclassical style in favor of a more realistic treatment of American themes. After the success of "The Freedman" and his popular "Indian Hunter," which stands in New York's Central Park, Ward became a leading sculptor of monuments and the first president of the National Sculpture Society.
Ward surely was stirred to create "The Freedman" by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln in September 1862. By the following January, the artist had completed the plaster model. In the National Academy of Design's 1863 exhibition, the sculpture received great praise. Even the prickly critic James Jackson Jarves stated: “We have seen nothing in our sculpture more soul-lifting, or more comprehensively eloquent…. It symbolizes the African race of America—the birthday of a new people.”
In "The Freedman" Ward brought a vigorous naturalism to American sculpture. The virile image of African American masculinity contrasted sharply with the prevailing nineteenth-century stereotypes. To infuse the image with even greater nobility and moral purpose, Ward based the man’s pose on the ancient Greek work "Belvedere Torso." Ward’s muscular figure is poised to rise and assume his rightful place in the world.