General John C. Frémont, 1867
Oil on canvas by Guiseppe Fagnani

Descriptive Detail:

Bearded and somber, dressed in formal military attire, an older man with a steadfast gaze leans against a piece of furniture. His elbow rests on the elaborately carved bookcase next to a statue of a seated African American man—a ring made of a shackle encircles the sculpted figure’s left wrist and in his right hand, he holds a broken ring and chain. This statue reminds us that the man in the portrait, General John C. Frémont, believed strongly in the abolition of slavery in the United States. This portrait might be seen as an image document for the viewer to “read.”

Local Historical Connections:

In 1861, the year the Civil War began, President Lincoln appointed Frémont as commander of the Union Army’s Department of the West. One of Frémont’s first acts was to issue an emancipation proclamation in which he placed the state of Missouri under martial law on August 30, 1861. According to his proclamation, all anti-Union citizens would have their property confiscated and their slaves freed. Those found with arms in the northern half of the state would be court-martialed and executed if found guilty. Frémont strongly opposed slavery and believed that harsh measures were necessary in order to put an end to the practice.

An accomplished explorer, Frémont was elected senator from California in 1850. Although he was the first presidential candidate for the Republican Party, he is most well known for the controversy that surrounded his 1861 proclamation. Fearing retaliation by anti-Union forces, Lincoln asked Frémont to alter the proclamation to conform to the national policy of seizing slaves and other property only if they were supporting the Confederate war effort. Lincoln and others in government wanted to keep states in the Union and saw the proclamation as a threat to this goal. Frémont refused to change the proclamation and was furthermore blamed for the disastrous defeat of Union troops at Wilson’s Creek (Springfield, Missouri, August 10, 1861, and Lexington, Missouri, September 21, 1861). As a result of the proclamation and these military defeats, Lincoln removed Frémont from his command of the Army of the West. Frémont supporters, who saw him as a martyr for his anti-slavery beliefs, were angry with President Lincoln. They believed Lincoln removed Frémont in order to appease pro-slavery politicians who thought the Union could be restored even if slavery still existed in the South.

Frémont was an important figure in the abolitionist movement in the United States in the years before and during the Civil War. The abolitionists sought to end slavery in the United States and to end the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery had been part of the history of America from colonial times. Although the states north of Maryland had abolished the practice between 1789 and 1830, slavery was an important part of the southern economy until the Civil War. Most northerners favored the gradual end of slavery and the compensation of slave owners, but the abolitionists demanded the immediate and complete end of the practice. Some abolitionists were willing to use force to meet their goal, but most sought changes in laws or worked to rescue slaves. The debate over slavery eventually culminated in the Civil War (1861–1865). Slave states in the South were pitted against the free North. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declared all slaves in rebel states to be free on January 1, 1863, and the end of the Civil War in 1865 marked the end of slavery in the United States. The abolitionist movement had not only succeeded in liberating millions of African Americans from slavery, but it also brought forth new ideas about freedom and human rights.

Artist Information:

Born in Naples, Italy, in 1819, Guiseppe Fagnini came to New York City in 1851 at the age of 32. This portrait of Frémont, painted in 1867, is one of his portraits of a significant political figure. His portrait of Henry Clay, 1852, is a part of the U.S. Capitol Collection. His images of well-known “beauties” who posed for him drew a great deal of attention—Fagnini’s painting Nine Muses was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He died in 1872.