by Rachel Stephens
University of Arkansas Press, 2023
Cloth: 978-1-68226-233-7 | eISBN: 978-1-61075-798-0
Library of Congress Classification N8243.S576
Dewey Decimal Classification 704.0396073

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists crafted a variety of visual messages about the plight of enslaved people, portraying the violence, familial separation, and dehumanization that they faced. In response, proslavery southerners attempted to counter these messages either through idealization or outright erasure of enslaved life.
In Hidden in Plain Sight: Concealing Enslavement in American Visual Culture, Rachel Stephens addresses an enormous body of material by tracing themes of concealment and silence through paintings, photographs, and ephemera, connecting long overlooked artworks with both the abolitionist materials to which they were responding and archival research across a range of southern historical narratives.
Stephens begins her fascinating study with an examination of the ways that slavery was visually idealized and defended in antebellum art. She then explores the tyranny—especially that depicted in art—enacted by supporters of enslavement, introduces a range of ways that artwork depicting slavery was tangibly concealed, considers photographs of enslaved female caretakers with the white children they reared, and investigates a printmaker’s confidential work in support of the Confederacy. Finally, she delves into an especially pernicious group of proslavery artists in Richmond, Virginia.
Reading visual culture as a key element of the antebellum battle over slavery, Hidden in Plain Sight complicates the existing narratives of American art and history.