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Engraving’s “Immoveable Veil”: Phillis Wheatley’s Portrait and the Politics of Technique

The frontispiece of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), added to increase the book’s humanitarian and commercial appeal, is an important “first” of Black portraiture. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid to the engraved representation of the poet’s dark skin and its contribution to her complicated reception. While engraving’s abstractions had long been used to commemorate idealized (white) individuals, an Enlightenment understanding of corporeal skin as a changeable surface meant that engraving’s linear syntax also lent itself to derogatory characterizations of Black skin as an “immoveable veil” that masks the expressions of Black subjects.
Relevant research areas: 18th Century, Engraving