An Unlikely Friendship

Posted by: Larry Socha, Consular Officer

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko
Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras ShevchenkoI

Earlier this month, touring the National Museum of Taras Shevchenko, I was surprised to find the portrait of an American painted by Taras Shevchenko’s own hand.  I was ever more surprised that it wasn’t of an American ambassador passing through St. Petersburg or a wealthy industrialist on his European Grand Tour, but rather the African-American actor, Ira Aldridge.  How could these two have met I wondered immediately.  Geographic, cultural, and social barriers should have prevented their paths from crossing, but here was this painting of the African-American actor from New York City staring at me in the center of Kyiv.

Aldridge and Shevchenko met in the winter of 1858-9, both far from their homelands.  Aldridge grew up in New York City, a free man, but still subject to the racist discrimination of the day.  Shevchenko, forbidden from returning to his native Ukraine, arrived in St. Petersburg after ten long years in exile in the Urals.

One could say it was their creative genius that brought them together.  By 1858, Aldridge was one of the best known actors in Europe.  He debuted on the London stage in 1825 in the title role of the Shakespearian play, Othello.  His portrayal required none of the black face paint actors normally applied for the role.  While criticized in the press, not least due to the color of his skin, audiences received him enthusiastically.  In 1852, he launched his continental European tour and became the first man of color to star in white Shakespearian roles.  His performances won him praise.  King Leopold I of Belgium became his patron.  King Frederick William III awarded him the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences.  When he arrived in the Russian capital in 1858, he was one of the highest paid actors of his times.

Shevchenko too captivated his audience’s attention.  In print, Kobzar published in 1840 was lauded for its clarity, elegance, and expression.  In paint, Picturesque Ukraine captured with deliberate, realistic detail the oppressive conditions of daily Ukrainian life.  However, while Shevchenko may have won public praise, he earned the political elite’s ire, and by 1858 had only just returned to St. Petersburg.

On December 6, 1858, Shevchenko wrote, “The African actor is here now; he does wonders on the stage.  He shows us the living Shakespeare.”  In the company of friends, and at times in conversation alone, the two great artists spent many days together in the brief span of two months.  Contemporary accounts tell of their expressive exchanges as their interpreters struggled to keep pace.  Shevchenko and Aldridge performed songs for one another, traditional Ukrainian folk melodies and Negro spirituals.  Aldridge posed on a number of occasions in Shevchenko’s studio, the results of which hang, both in the National Museum of Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv, and in the Ira Aldridge Theater on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC.

The story of Ira Aldridge and Taras Shevchenko is one of friendship, but also one of freedom.  Both men sought freedom in the power of their words.  Both drew inspiration from real human struggle, slavery and serfdom.   They were men ahead of their time whose examples inspire us in our own.

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