Black Artist Completing A Portrait of A White Female Aristocrat

June 27 2011, 10:58am

Possibly Brazilian School. First half of the eighteenth century. Oil on canvas.

Height: 41″ (104 cm); Width: 32 1/2″ (81.5 cm). 9897 The painting belongs to a small, but increasingly examined, body of works in which black subjects are depicted in all manner of roles, from subservient to scholarly. While the representation of blacks following intellectual pursuits is rare, it is not unheard of, as seen in the portrait Francis Williams, the Negro Scholar of Jamaica circa 1740, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The son of wealthy former slaves, Williams enjoyed a European lifestyle and the opportunity to pursue poetry and mathematics. In his portrait, Williams is depicted in his study with the Jamaican city of Spanish Town in the distance. While the subject of the present painting also appears to enjoy some level of luxury, the context is more ambiguous. Although the figure of this black artist appears to be wearing a dress, it is likely to be a male figure. As the scholar Sheldon Cheek explains, the artist wears an earring and a silver collar, both common articles worn by black male servants/slaves in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, the collar traditionally indicating slave status. Women rarely, if ever, wore the silver collar. The artist also appears to be wearing a silver “shackle” on the arm. An argument in favor of the slave/servant status of this black figure would be the style of dress. The cut-work shoulders and other features of the clothing do not seem typical of the 18th century, and could reflect the often fanciful kinds of costumes worn by slaves of the wealthy during this period. Usually, black male figures appear in portraits of this period in attendance to their masters, serving as status symbols. The figures are usually engaged in established, common activities such as holding a bowl of fruit or some article of the sitter’s clothing. In the case of this painting, however, this relationship is indicated in a unique and far less subservient manner. The origin of the painting is as yet uncertain, however, strong clues exist as witnessed in the urban landscape seen through the window in the painting. According to the scholar Bentley Angliss, tiled roofs of this lively and distinctive reddish-pink color are specific to Portugal and colonial Brazil, which was under Portuguese rule until 1822. The architecture is  reminiscent of that found in the Brazilian northeastern coastal city of Ceará, settled as a fief of the Portuguese crown whose economy in the 18th century centered on sugar plantations worked by black slaves, and the mining towns of Minas Gerais, such as Ouro Preto, where slave labor was employed during the gold rush and whose magnificent Baroque architecture is well-preserved even today. The slave population in Brazil was the largest in the world, spanning four centuries. In the 1600s, when native Americans were no longer considered a viable labor force due to large numbers of deaths from abuse and disease, the Portuguese began importing black Africans to support their mining and sugarcane ventures, and to work on their large estates. Slaves were owned by the upper and middle classes, however they were also owned by the poor as well as other slaves. Although abolished in Portugal in 1761, it was not until 1881 that Brazil enacted it’s final abolition, the last country in the Western World to do so. Despite this prolonged injustice, slaves in Brazil experienced a less severe lifestyle than those in other parts of the world. Religion played a large role in the treatment of slaves there. Christianization was required and groups of slaves were baptized en masse, and slaves that worked on plantations owned by religious orders were given unusually fair treatment. Working conditions and hours do not appear to have been as harsh for the Brazilian slave, who was often given a portion of the day to tend to his own land. In addition, along with Sundays and Christmas, Brazilian slaves were given approximately thirty additional holidays throughout the year.