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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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

An International Mystery at the Fraunces Tavern Museum

A recent email newsletter from the Fraunces Tavern Museum raised interesting questions about one of its prize artifacts, the painting shown here.

The article said:
Since November 17, 1913 the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York have been proud to refer to the man in the portrait…as Samuel Fraunces, a New York City tavern keeper, an entrepreneur, an American Revolution spy, and a professional relation of George Washington. But this article is not about the man but the continued research being conducted on the painting and its sitter.

This 18th century Museum object was purchased by the Society for thirty-five dollars at auction from Merwin Sales Company in 1913. The auction catalogue lists this painting along with other items for sale, “Artist Unknown / Colonial Period / Portrait of Samuel Fraunces. / Canvas. Height 29in.: width, 23in.” Since 1913 the portrait has hung proudly in the Museum’s galleries and always interpreted as the image of Samuel Fraunces.
This portrait comes up in discussions of Fraunces’s nickname, “Black Sam.” In the early and mid-twentieth century, many African-Americans interpreted that name to mean the tavern keeper was of African descent. That would have been remarkable, given Fraunces’s social standing in slaveholding New York, but none of his contemporaries wrote anything else to support the idea. And of course the portrait shows a pale man.

But now there’s reason to question whether that portrait shows Fraunces at all. As the museum explains in this article, in December 2017 a German historian named Arthur Kuhle contacted the museum about a painting of an unknown nobleman at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. That man’s face and wig look very much like the picture of Samuel Fraunces, and the clothing is similar.

Kuhle hypothesizes that the Dresden portrait came from the court of Frederick the Great and shows one of that king’s six most intimate friends in the 1740s. Evidently Frederick had portraits of all six of those men painted, and only four survive. Judging by other images of the two missing men, I think the most likely candidate from that group is Michael Gabriel Fredersdorf (1708-1758). He was allegedly a royal lover who rose from a soldier guarding the prince to a powerful court administrator before he married a woman, fell from favor, and died.

But of course the Dresden portrait may show someone entirely different, not even from Prussia. And the Fraunces Tavern portrait likewise. Even the resemblance could be a coincidence or the sign of an artist with a limited range. There’s much more research to do.

The idea that Samuel Fraunces was African-American is still unlikely. His nickname might have reflected his Caribbean background in some way, or perhaps his coloring was just darker than the man in this painting—whoever he was.


Don Carleton said...

Upon seeing your post, I kind of thought the portrait looked more like a Continental, maybe central European, gent than an Anglo-American!

Bill Caughlan said...

The racial background of Samuel Fraunces comes up quite frequently in my circles. I've often pointed to the nickname given to Admiral Richard Howe as an argument against Samuel Fraunces' nickname being proof that he was of African descent. Also, I recall someone bringing up the point that Fraunces was a Freemason...that Masons were not too keen on allowing Africans to join their fraternity. Nonetheless, people still hold on to this unproven and likely myth.

J. L. Bell said...

There are decades of American books describing Fraunces as black, as well as other books saying he wasn't. Since catering was one of the few professions in which black men could become successful and prominent in the early republic, the idea isn't outlandish. But it was rare for African-American caterers to own a major property the way Fraunces did. And for him not to be noted as a black man except in that nickname, which we agree was ambiguous, would be next to impossible.

There was of course a lodge of “African” Freemasons founded in Boston in the 1770s, but indeed the white Freemasons' lodges didn't admit black men.