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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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Mysteries of Scipio Moorhead

On 7 Jan 1773 and nine more times that year, the Boston News-Letter ran this advertisement:
At Mr. M‘Lean’s, Watch-Maker, near the Town-House, is a Negro Man whose extraordinary Genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London; he takes Faces at the lowest Rates. Specimens of his Performances may be seen at said Place.
Some authors have linked that ad to Scipio Moorhead, the only black artist known to be active in Boston around that time.

However, Eric Slauter, author of the article “Looking for Scipio Moorhead” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, thinks that his subject was still an adolescent at that time, not “a Negro Man.”

According to the sources Slauter has lined up, Scipio Moorhead was baptized as a child in King’s Chapel on 11 June 1760. He was still enslaved to the Moorhead family in late 1773 and 1774, and advertised in the 2 Jan 1775 Boston Gazette as “a likely Negro Lad” in an estate sale to be held ironically “not far from Liberty Tree.” (Slauter acknowledges that a late 1774 estate inventory listed “a Negro man, named Scipio,” but the preponderance of evidence suggests he was still in his teens.)

Slauter also notes that the only evidence we have for Scipio Moorhead as an artist is Phillis Wheatley’s poem “To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works.” A note on an early copy gives that painter’s full name, and Wheatley addressed another poem to the Moorhead family. But no one else mentioned Scipio Moorhead’s art in surviving documents, and no known examples have survived.

Many people assume the portrait of Wheatley engraved for the frontispiece of her book, shown above, was based on a painting by Scipio Moorhead, but that’s just a guess based on their acquaintance. All we know for sure is that the Countess of Huntingdon suggested having a picture of Wheatley as the frontispiece, and, since the countess was supporting the printing, the Wheatley family adopted the idea in the spring of 1773.

We now have strong evidence of a black portrait artist working in Boston in early 1773 with three paintings ascribed to him: Prince Demah (Barnes). The one portrait signed with his name—showing Scottish importer William Duguid is dated “February 1773,” just weeks after that newspaper ad first ran. It therefore appears that Prince Demah, not Scipio Moorhead, was that “Negro Man” painting “Faces at the lowest Rates.” And Prince Demah may also have painted Phillis Wheatley.

TOMORROW: Training in London.

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