J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, March 03, 2014

Painting the Legend

The Skinner auction house reports that that watercolor I’ve been discussing sold for $39,975, above the estimate. I hope its new owner is pleased with the painting and the little historical mystery it brings.

Thinking about what makes an artifact interesting reminded me of a story I noted back in 2006, right after I started this blog. As reported by National Public Radio and the New Yorker, the story started in 1975 when Alexander McBurney, a doctor in Rhode Island, bought the painting shown here.

A picture of a Revolutionary-era black mariner in uniform is extremely rare, and this images was reproduced in various books over the following decades. For example, in The Unknown American Revolution Gary Nash speculated that a sailor commissioned it after a lucrative privateering voyage.

About 2005 the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York was planning an exhibit on “Fighting for Freedom: Black Patriots and Loyalists.” McBurney sent the canvas out for restoration before loaning it to that exhibit.

But the restoration by Peter Williams revealed that the sailor’s face and brown skin had been painted over a rather ordinary portrait of a Royal Navy officer, probably in the late 1900s. The N.P.R. link includes before-and-after images of the mariner’s hand. The original face was unsalvageable.

Dr. McBurney then asked Williams to restore the canvas to how it looked when he’d bought it, with the face of a fictitious black man. Though he knew that face had no historical authenticity, over the years he’d become fond of it. And he had a much better story.


J. L. Bell said...

Don Hagist tells me that the painted eyes above watched over the Revolutionary War historian Christian McBurney during his youth. So even a fictional face can provide inspiration.

Mary Jean Adams said...

This only makes the painting more of a mystery. I can understand why a black man might commission a painting of himself after a privateering venture. But why would someone turn a painting of a white man into a black man? I suppose there are all kinds of possible answers, but we'll probably never know for sure?

Anonymous said...

Just pondering... there could be many extant portraits of men that underneath have a likenesses of another man.
-Chris H. of Woburn

J. L. Bell said...

People think the faking was done in the early 1970s as the Bicentennial and the civil rights movement were inspiring new interest in blacks in Revolutionary America. There were lots of middling portraits of unidentified naval officers, but a portrait of a black man in naval uniform was extraordinary and therefore more striking and valuable.

The relatively few genuine artifacts showing men and women of African descent not only made surviving examples more collectible, they may also have made it harder to determine which were fake. For example, what seems to be a genuine image of an African-American soldier from Rhode Island has a caricatured face, making this painting's unrealistic face seem more authentic.