The American Slave

John Bell (1811-1895)


Bronze and silver

60 inches (152.5 cm.)

National Trust, Cragside, the Armstrong Collection

Source: Sculpture Victorious (2014 exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, no. 84)

According to Michael Hatt's detailed catalogue essay, “John Bell's statue of an African woman, standing on the shore of Africa waiting to be transported as a slave to the Americas, was a direct response to Hiram Powers's Greek Slave (cats. 80—81). Bell clearly wanted to capitalise on Powers's success, but there was also a profound moral purpose to the work that addressed a more urgent international political scandal: the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

“The original plaster was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1853, identified as 'A Daughter of Eve—A Scene on the Shore of the Atlantic—to be executed in bronze'.' The Art Journal remarked that 'the allusion is at once intelligible', that is, the statue was immediately comprehensible as an attack on American slavery. The phrase 'Daughter of Eve' refers to a biblical understanding that all people were descended from Adam and Eve, and so shared the same moral status in God's creation; this was an argument often used” by abolitionists to attack slavery's denial of the slave's humanity. Bell's imitation of Powers is not just opportunism; his devout Christianity underpins a serious ethical intent. . . .”

“Even if Bell adapts the ideal body for a black figure, he does present the woman as beautiful, at a moment when racist representation frequently characterised the black body as the antithesis of beauty, as something ugly and animal, beyond the canon of the aesthetic. Indeed, the representation of the black body in sculpture was fraught with an internal tension. It had to conform to a white aesthetic ideal to count as beautiful and thus to connote virtue, nobility or other moral content. To represent blackness as distinctive or specific marked out the failure of the black body to be beautiful; unlike the white ideal, such a body could never serve as the index of morality and civilisation. The careful balance of ideal and real, of transcendent sculpture and concrete body, is Bell's attempt to resolve this dilemma” (251-52).

Link to related material

  • The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture [review of the exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute, London (2022-23)]