"An Aesthetic Darkey" from the "Aiken and Vicinity" series

James A. Palmer Irish-American

Not on view

This racially and culturally offensive photograph captures the attitudes and stereotypes prevalent in America at the end of the 19th century. Likely made in response to Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic ideals of beauty and "art-for-art’s sake" philosophy, the image depicts an African American youth seated at a table with an Edgefield face jug displaying a large sunflower and calla lily (two popular signifiers of the Anglo-American Aesthetic Movement and Wilde in particular), along with an open book and horseshoe. The image appears to be modeled after William Holbrook Beard’s woodcut engraving entitled "The Aesthetic Monkey," featured on the January 28, 1882 cover of Harper’s Weekly. Palmer’s staged photograph adds a horseshoe to the composition. Wilde, the Irish-born writer and cultural tastemaker, traveled in 1882 to the United States and Canada for an 11-month tour, lecturing on the precepts of Aestheticism and its popular forms. The tour turned Wilde into a celebrity, and garnered extensive press coverage along the way. Notably, Wilde made three lecture stops in Georgia in early July 1882, perhaps inspiring Palmer’s "An Aesthetic Darkey" and "The Wilde Woman of Aiken," a similar photograph featuring a young woman posed with the same vignette.

"An Aesthetic Darkey" from the "Aiken and Vicinity" series, James A. Palmer (Irish-American, 1825–1896), Albumen silver print from glass negative, American

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