"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Sunday, December 16, 2007


This daguerreotype of John Brown taken circa 1846-47 was in the Brown family for five generations before the Hall Family Foundation purchased it for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at a Dec. 7 auction.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has acquired a rare daguerreotype of abolitionist John Brown. The Hall Family Foundation purchased the work for the museum at a Dec. 7 auction in Cincinnati for $97,750. The foundation was one of four telephone bidders for the work, according to Cowan’s Auctions.

The image, one of six known daguerreotypes of Brown, was made by Augustus Washington, a highly respected African-American photographer and abolitionist based in Hartford, Conn. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery owns a Washington portrait of Brown, believed to have been taken at the same sitting. Keith F. Davis, the Nelson’s curator of photography, calls the new acquisition “a pivotal daguerreotype from the period.”

The half-length portrait was taken circa 1846-47, when Brown was active in the abolitionist movement in Hartford and Springfield, Conn., where he had a wool brokerage. His importance to local history stems from his activities a decade later in Kansas, where he led attacks against pro-slavery forces, including the widely publicized killing of five pro-slavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek.  Brown’s anti-slavery efforts culminated in his 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., for which he was tried and hanged.

Before its purchase by the Hall Family Foundation, the work had been in Brown’s family for five generations. The family decided to sell it to pay for some medical expenses, Cowan’s Auctions said.
At the Nelson, Brown’s portrait joins roughly 800 daguerreotypes in the museum’s photography collection, including 200 displayed in the ticketed exhibit “Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography, 1839-1885.”  The museum will exhibit the Brown portrait beginning in March in the museum’s free photography galleries.

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