Free Women of Colour with Their Children and Servants
England (c. 1780s)
Oil on Canvas, 36.8 x 64.7 cm.
Series on Agostino Brunias’s Slice of Life in the West Indies
Agostino Brunias was an Italian artist in London who traveled to the West Indies at the height of his career, employed by Sir William Young to paint scenes and people there. Most of his paintings feature Free People of Color going about their daily business. Although his works are beautiful and showcase the breathtaking beauty, prosperity, and fashion sense of his subjects as well as the landscapes, they can be jarring when set against the realities of colonialism, slavery, and depredations being wreaked by Europeans during the 18th century in the West Indies.
These works are part of the Yale Center for British Art’s Paul Mellon Collection, and were, unfortunately, the target of academic racism: devaluation, rejection, and urgent memos to get rid of them at any cost.
Amanda Michaela Bagneris briefly describes the situation in her 2009 (280 page!) thesis on Brunias:
Apparently the writer of the Yale memo felt that Brunias’s small, colorful canvases, depicting scenes of Caribbean life in some of the newly acquired territories of Britain’s growing empire and concerned almost exclusively with people of color, did not reflect the Center’s concern with “British” art; he ticked off his primary arguments in favor of selling the paintings in a terse, itemized list:
I would recommend the sale of the Brunias paintings…for the arguments below:
1. Brunias is not English and very, very minor.
2. The paintings are Mr. Mellon’s and we have told him that we intend no further changes to the lists of sales.
3. His books on West Indian subject matter are classed among his “Americana”.
4. We have the prints. The paintings may or may not be for or after the engravings. They are not of high quality.
5. Prof. Thompson has the photographs and slides.
6. They have tenuous connection with British Studies but, I suppose, could, if Mr. Mellon were persuaded, be offered to the Afro-American Cultural Center (if they have anywhere to look after them) or to the Ethnography department at the Peabody. He added: “I do not think we ought to stub our toe over such an unimportant pebble.”
In short, the writer of this recommendation found these works unimportant, too “American”, too “Afro-American”, too “Ethnographical”, of low quality, and not “British” enough.
This series of paintings is an incredibly important depiction of Free People of Color of many castes and stations. Despite the ravages of colonialism, they are shown prospering, laughing, living, and looking absolutely gorgeous while doing so. But apparently, they weren’t considered good or important enough for some curators.
Sadly, some of these paintings have been sold away by the Yale Center for British Art, including this one which was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum.
Whether these paintings defy or romanticize colonialism is still a hotly debated topic in art history, but no one can deny that they are powerful, important, and deserve a place of honor in any museum’s collection.
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More paintings by Agostino Brunias on MedievalPOC