Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotype

Louis Agassiz commissioned photographer J.T. Zealy to create a series of daguerreotype in 1850. This imaged was called “Renty,” for the name of the slave depicted in the picture. Renty was an African-born slave who was owned by B.F. Taylor, a planter from Columbia, South Carolina.

The daguerreotype is made on a quarter plate of glass or metal and measures 8.9 x 6.4cm. The daguerreotype is currently being held at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

Agassiz commissioned these images to use as scientific visual evidence to prove the physical difference between white Europeans and black Africans. The primary goal was to prove the racial superiority of the white race. The photographs were also meant to serve as evidence for his theory of “separate creation,” which contends that each race originated as a separate species.

Zealy’s series includes fifteen daguerreotypes, which were divided into two sections. The first section features fully nude images showing front, side and rear views. This method demonstrates the physiognomic approach, which focused on recording body shape, proportions and posture.

Rently’s image belongs to the second series that focused on heads and torsos. This method demonstrates the phrenological approach, which concentrate on the size and shape of the head.

Source: Wallis, Brian. Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes. American Art, Vol.9. No. 2(Summer, 1995), pp. 39-61.


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