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, May 15, 2006

Portrait in black and white

The 15 May New Yorker has a very interesting "Talk of the Town" piece about a portrait of a Revolutionary-era black mariner in uniform. Here's a black and white reproduction, showing the painting before it was sent for restoration. At that time, the owner planned to loan it to the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York for its exhibit on "Fighting for Freedom: Black Patriots and Loyalists."

But the painting won't be in that show after all. It turns out the sailor's face and brown-skinned chest were painted over what seems to be a rather ordinary portrait of a British naval officer. Since formal portraits of black men in the eighteenth century are truly extraordinary, this naturally increased the value of the object in both monetary and historical terms. The forging was apparently done shortly before the Bicentennial, when interest in Revolutionary history had exploded and interest in Afro-American history was growing.

One detail of the New Yorker article that I like, though it has nothing to do with Revolutionary history, is that the painting's owner asked for the black sailor's image to be put back on. (The naval officer's features were apparently unsalvageable.) Though the owner knew that face had no historical authenticity, over the years he had come to be fond of this fictitious man on his wall.

ADDENDUM: The New Yorker article is no longer available online, but here’s an even better link to N.P.R.’s coverage of the story, including a color image of the painting and before-and-after images of the restoration detail.

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