Blacks in American high art during the days of slavery were few and far between. There were dehumanizing Daguerreotypes of slaves, of course, and other non-photographic portrayals of slavery. But most of the fanciful portraits people consider to be typical of the time period were not things for which many African-Americans sat. That said, it didn’t never happen. Some Blacks were indeed painted and photographed with dignity by the top artists of the day. And just recently, perhaps the most famous historic painting of an African-American ever has sold for a huge sum at auction.
Painter Charles Wilson Peale was largely known for his portraits of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But one of Peale’s most famous pieces has nothing to do with ultra-famous white founding fathers. Rather, it’s a portrait of Yarrow Mamout, a Muslim and freed slave who was living in Washington, D.C., when Peale painted him in 1819. According to historians, upon being freed from his slavers in 1797, Mamout moved to D.C., where he became a well-known fixture in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood, especially for his constant praises of Allah. Peale found Mamout when the ex-slave was about 83, and the rest is art history.
For years now the Mamout portrait has been in the possession of the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent. That changed last week when the history museum sold it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for an undisclosed sum (though some estimate that the painting actually costs around $1.5 million). Timothy Rub, the director of the Art Museum, called the Mamout portrait a “rare and important painting.”
You have to wonder if Mamout, who died about four years after Peale painted him, could have ever imagined that his face would one day be hanging in major cultural institutions. What a progression: From the plantation fields to the art museum.
(Photo: Artwork by Charles Wilson Peale)