To truly understand the power of Harlem Canvas, said Martha S. Jones, a public historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University, you have to go back 200 years to Ms. Bridges’ hometown of Philadelphia, where in the 1820s found a young white illustrator. named Edward Clay. After studying abroad in Paris and London, Clay was shocked to discover a thriving free black culture upon his return. Well-dressed blacks stroll through parks and shop in department stores. It was, says Mrs. Jones, that kind of new sociability. Clay was very disturbed by this and created panels of etchings in response. As Ms Jones explained, “The result is a series called ‘Life in Philadelphia’, a series of very cruel and very ugly caricatures of middle-class black figures in Philadelphia at that time. They are adopted, borrowed, distributed, widely.
What happened next is emblematic of how something as simple as wallpaper becomes more than just decoration. A French painter named Jean-Julien Deltil was inspired by Clay’s “Life in Philadelphia” to create a series of images with titles like “Views of North America” and “New York Bay” that highlighted featured middle-class black Americans, but not in caricature. Deltil’s designs were made into wallpaper in 1834 by the French firm Zuber & Cie.
In the early 1960s, Jacqueline Kennedy purchased this Zuber wallpaper and installed it in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. Wallpaper took on a whole new meaning when the Obamas entered the White House. “Images of the President and First Lady posing alongside matching Zuber & Cie wallpaper images of elegantly dressed black Americans, circa 1834, indicate the Obamas’ knowledge of their own iconic roles nearly a century beyond of those of the characters represented in these decorations of the White House”, writes Richard Powell, professor of art history at Duke University, in the book “The Obama Portraits”.
Mrs. Jones, herself, has a panel of Zuber wallpaper installed in her home. As a historian, she says, the emotional tug of living with the figures of black Americans that Deltil drew with grace and humanity is as important to her as the family portraits and memories. “The characters on my wallpaper are people I talk to every day,” she said. “I salute them. I live with them, and they fill in for people we might know. And the many we don’t know enough about. And in this way, they are also valuable.