Painting Lunsford Lane: A Reflection on the Art of History

Craig Thompson Friend

Portrait of Lunsford Lane by Craig Friend. This painting is protected by copyright. Reproduction or use of this image is prohibited without artist’s permission.

Attendees at the SHEAR Presidential Address in July 2018 may notice a difference in content when the speech is printed in the Journal of the Early Republic in Spring 2019. The printed form concludes by pulling together themes introduced throughout the address, drawing from an original version that I had discarded as I considered the performance of a presidential address. I altered my conclusion, seeking a quick but memorable way out of a slightly lengthy presentation:

In her beautiful biography of John Singleton Copley, Jane Kamensky claimed that “biography is in many ways like a portrait. The genre traffics in the individual, the irreproducible, the extraordinary.” I agree, but as a budding portrait artist I would take the analogy further: like the painter who uses the same tubes of paints as she or he does for all their portraits, the historian—whether engaged in life-writing or public history—draws from a limited palette of primary sources. It is in the ways in which the scholar imagines the background, the breadth and length of brushstrokes, and choices in employing light and darkness that the historian reproduces the irreproducible and makes the extraordinary accessible. She or he then stands back and allows the audience to reflect upon the result, feel emotion, and find their own meaning.1 

I admit it was a bit self-indulgent. After all, the concluding paragraph and the painting itself had very little thematic connection to the rest of my address.2 Still, how often does one who is not a recognized artist get to showcase a work? I was not throwing away my shot. 

I would like to take this opportunity, however, to expand on the conclusion that got away, specifically the need for historians to step back and allows audiences to “reflect upon the result, feel emotion, and find their own meaning.” We historians tend not to loosen our grips on research, interpreting, and explaining. Appropriately, we believe our expertise means something, positioning us to inform and enlighten. The pursuit of expertise, however, has resulted in rather inflexible professional definitions of the appropriate forms of interpreting and explaining historical evidence. For example, although some professional organizations have begun to give awards for digital scholarship and public history outreach, the overwhelming majority of awards are granted for traditional forms: dissertations, journal articles, books—all of which have proscribed forms with similar scholarly expectations. Even digital and public history awards are given more often for concept, effort, and reach than for scholarly content because the works do not fit traditional expectations about scholarship. 

So, creativity is not a term that we historians easily attach to our undertakings. Of course, we laud scholars who are inventive in finding new sources (for example, Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town, and David Blight’s Frederick Douglass) and in their storytelling (such as John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive, and Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages). But even when historians purposefully set out to discuss the creative act of producing history, they struggle because it is counterintuitive. Between 2009 and 2011, when the American Historical Association produced a series around the theme of “The Art of History,” most of the essays demonstrated how tethered we remain to the steps of scholarship passed from scholarly generation to scholarly generation without much reimagining at all. Only a few—Lynn Hunt’s exploration of the “magical and mysterious process” of writing, Marcus Rediker’s discussion of the poetic role of storytelling, and Dane Kennedy’s suggestion that we push back against “serious” historical scholarship by seeking humor in the past—offered imaginative ways to move beyond well-worn patterns and processes of scholarship.3

The historian’s purpose is trifold: to research and interpret in order to explain. We work with a focused gaze on determining “what did it mean?” Other forms of engagement, more artistic forms, allow us to imagine the questions and expectations of scholarship differently, and release us from explaining. That is not a bad thing. There is a reckoning at hand for professional historians: Beyond the academy, many, maybe most, people do not enjoy history because the author explains to them what to think about the topic at hand. They enjoy and find meaning in history for the ways in which stories engage their senses, their memories, and their ideas of individual and collective identity. If we are to be honest, those are the experiences that attracted most historians to the profession, before we were trained to understand and do history differently.

In discussing her work on Blindspot, a historical novel co-written with Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky described how “where history is hermeneutic, fiction is phenomenological,” concluding her thought: “A convincing fictional world needs the truth of the skin and the eye more than the truths of the archive.” I would append to that statement that a convincing historical world also needs the truth of the skin and the eye in order to enhance the truth of the archives.4 More historians would be well served to find ways to interact with their subjects that allow them to better sense the phenomenological. Writing fiction, composing poetry or songs, playwrighting, or even scrapbooking all offer insight into other truths that are often more appealing to audiences. 

In my case, it was portraiture. The archives can be rather stingy in researching someone like Lunsford Lane. Only one image of him exists, dated 1863 when he was sixty years old. I wanted to imagine what he was like in his late thirties, recently emancipated, proud of his position as a courier and waiter in the governor’s office and as a doorman for the Governor’s Council. How might he have dressed? How would he have carried himself? Where might he have wished to stand for an artist? What would have been his gaze? These are not questions answered by the archives, but they are questions about the skin and the eye, about his humanity. And in the process of painting Lunsford, I came to a more intimate sense of who he was as informed by the archives. He ceased being a subject of study; he became a fellow human. And is that not what our audiences seek: connections on the most human level? I will not sacrifice professional expectations as I continue my biography of Lunsford Lane, but I do hope that by being open to imagining him in other ways, I will empower my eventual readers to reflect upon the result, feel emotion, and find their own meaning.


1 Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (New York, 2016), 7‒8; Leon Edel, “The Figure under the Carpet,” in Telling Lives: The Biographer’s Art, ed. Marc Pachter (Philadelphia, 1981), 20. 

2 Craig Thompson Friend, Lunsford Lane at the State Capitol, 1840, 2018, oil on canvas, 30 by 40 in., private collection. Reproduction or use of this image is prohibited without artist’s permission. 

3 “The Art of History,” American Historical Association, Perspectives on History, July 18, 2011, (accessed Dec. 13, 2018), specifically Lynn Hunt, “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” Feb. 1, 2010; Marcus Rediker, “The Poetics of History from Below,” Sept. 1, 2010; Dane Kennedy, “Where’s the Humor in History?” Feb. 1, 2011.

4 Lauren Porcaro Dorment, “The Exchange: Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky (Part 2),” New Yorker 19, Feb. 2009, (accessed Dec. 14, 2018).

1 March 2019

About the Author

Craig Thompson Friend is Graduate Professor of History and Director Emeritus of Public History at North Carolina State University.

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