The Art Institute of Chicago announced in 2009 that it had acquired a painting that had not been viewed or on display for over 180 years.
This is that painting.
There is sufficient evidence to assume that this painting was done by Simpson in collaboration with Aldridge as an abolitionist statement. It was first displayed in 1827 at the Royal Academy of Arts Along with this poem:
But Ah! what wish can prosper, or what prayer
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair
"The Captive Slave" by John Simpson (1782-1847): A rediscovered masterpiece
The British Art Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Spring 2009), pp. 18-26
It will never stop hurting me how much his outfit looks like a the outfits we put prisoners in. Every time I see it I see an incarcerated man in a modern prison. And then I am again reminded that no, this is an enslaved man from nearly 200 years ago. And in that moment the parallels between those two are so sharp and so poignant that I have to stop for a minute and just think about the world. And I want to scream and cry and burn this nation down and start fresh. But instead I just find myself a little more dedicated to my activism and a little more humble about the comforts and privileges afforded to me as a white person by other white people at the cost of the lives and freedom of other people.
I think the parallel hit a lot of people really hard.
This is not a portrait of someone who had no choice over being painted.
I think it’s an important distinction to make because of both the effectiveness of his pose and expression; also to keep in mind the directed, purposeful agency of the man in this painting who is choosing to pose and express the deep emotions he feels. He is very much a part of this artwork’s creation and power.