Philadelphia Museum of Art acquires rare Peale portrait

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has acquired the painting Yarrow Mamout, 1819, an exceptionally rare portrait of an African-American by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), one of the most renowned American artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Depicting an aged man who had been born in Guinea in western Africa, taken into slavery in the American colonies and later manumitted, or freed by his owner, it is one of the very earliest known works to depict a freed slave in the United States and the earliest known painting of a Muslim in America. Upon its completion, Yarrow Mamout was exhibited at Peale’s Museum, in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where it could be seen alongside other works by the artist and his son Rembrandt that represented George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis and Clark, David Rittenhouse, and many other accomplished individuals. Measuring 24 x 20 inches, this new acquisition has today been placed on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It has been purchased from the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

“The name Charles Willson Peale is closely associated with Philadelphia’s prominence as the leading artistic center in late 18th- and early 19th-century America,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener director and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Although Peale’s work is well represented in our collection, his portrait of Yarrow Mamout is distinctive by virtue of the fact that it is one of the earliest and certainly one of the most sympathetic portraits of an African-American to be found in the history of American art. Peale was especially drawn to this remarkable man, not only because of his advanced age – he was reputed to be 140 years old – but also because of his remarkable personal history: a freed slave who had achieved prosperity and was well known to the citizens of Washington, D.C., where the artist painted this portrait. It is an exceptional painting that tells an equally exceptional story.”

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said, “This portrait depicts a man who triumphed over enormous challenges and commanded the respect and admiration of all who knew him. Thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art it is a great thing that such an extraordinary painting will remain here so that it can continue to serve as an inspiration for all of our citizens. That its sale will provide much-needed resources for the Philadelphia History Museum, as well as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which shares in the proceeds of the sale, is what I would call a win for all of these great institutions and for our city.”

Peale’s Museum, which is widely acknowledged by historians to have been the first museum in the United States, occupied the upper floors and tower of Independence Hall from 1802 until 1827. In 1854, when its collections were dispersed, the portrait of Yarrow Mamout was misidentified and auctioned as “Washington’s servant” to Charles S. Ogden, who donated the picture to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1892. The painting entered the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum in 1999 when it received by transfer much of the HSP’s collection of art and artifacts.

Peale was nearly 80 years old when he went to Washington to lobby for federal funding for his museum and to paint “portraits of distinguished public characters” such as Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay for his portrait gallery. Along with his dedication to healthy habits, Peale had a keen and abiding interest in longevity, and while in Washington he heard of a former slave said to be nearly 140 years old. Peale went out of his way to find and paint Yarrow Mamout at the home that Mamout owned in Georgetown.

Modern research shows that Mamout, a Muslim from Guinea and literate in Arabic, was taken into bondage in the colonies about 1752 and freed after 45 years in slavery. He was not as old as Peale believed him to be, but his sprightly condition at such an advanced age – probably about 83 – was remarkable for this period. His name, perhaps more correctly given in West Africa as Mahmoud Yaro, is one of many variant spellings of the name of the prophet Mohammed. His knit cap, serving to keep him warm during Peale’s mid-winter portrait session, may also represent headgear from the region of Africa from which he came. Peale’s diary describes Yarrow Mamout as a cheerful man notable for his “industry, frugality and sobriety,” and observes: “He professes to be a Mahometan, and is often seen and heard in the streets singing praises to God – and, conversing with him, he said man is no good unless his religion comes from his heart.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns the most comprehensive collection of works by Charles Willson Peale and his legendary family of artists, including his brother James, his sons Raphaelle, Rembrandt and Titian, and his numerous grandchildren. “This painting adds a new dimension to our collection of Peale’s work at the end of his life, when he enjoyed a spectacular artistic renaissance,” said Kathleen A. Foster, the Robert L. McNeil Jr. senior curator of American Art.

Paintings of African-American subjects by American artists are rare before 1820. The three finest and best-known in oil are Copley’s vivacious Head of a Negro (Detroit Institute of Arts) painted in England in 1777-78, perhaps as a study for Watson and the Shark; the portrait of the 1790s said to depict George Washington’s enslaved cook, Hercules, and attributed to Gilbert Stuart (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid); and Peale’s charismatic image of Yarrow Mamout. The only earlier portrait known to survive of a freed slave in America is that of the Rev. Absalom Jones, painted on paper eight years before the portrait of Yarrow Mamout, by Peale’s son Raphaelle (Delaware Art Museum).

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