The National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution inaugurated its One Life Gallery in 2006—a compact space reserved for exhibitions of art and artifacts related to the life of single historical figures. The gallery has been a showcase for the stories of Marian Anderson, Walt Whitman, Babe Ruth, Sandra Day O’Connor, Dolores Huerta, and Thomas Paine, among others, and is now home to an exhibition devoted to the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The show opened, appropriately, on the long weekend devoted to the celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the end of the institution of slavery in the United States.
While the venue is, perhaps, an ironically small setting in which to relate the story of a man whose thundering oratory rattled the rafters, the show ably captures the essence of Douglass’s life and legacy. Among the thirty-five artifacts on display are the ledger documenting Douglass’s birth on a Maryland plantation in February 1818; copies of two of his three autobiographies; sheet music for a song about his escape from slavery; and a pamphlet containing the text of his caustic speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Most telling are the portraits of Douglass, in which his face charts the passage of his life and career: from self-assured youth, to mature leonine firebrand, to grizzled elder statesman.
One Life: Frederick Douglass • National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC • to April 21, 2024 • npg.si.edu