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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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Prince: Mrs. Barnes's "Black Limner"

Christian Barnes was a merchant’s wife in Marlborough. She was good friends with Elizabeth Smith, a wealthy widow who had started out as an immigrant shopkeeper and worked and married her way into a large estate in Milton. Apparently the two households' enslaved workers had family links as well.

On 20 Nov 1769, Barnes wrote to Smith, who was on a trip home to Great Britain, about a slave named Prince, who was showing unusual artistic talent:

Daphneys Son Prince is here and I am siting to him for my Picture he has taken a Coppy of my Brothers extreemly well and if mine has the least resemblance I shall have a strong inclination to send it to you purely for the curiosity tho it is nothing but a Daub for he has not proper materials to work with.
Three days later, Barnes added that her husband had bought Prince
not solely with a View of Drawing my Picture but I believe he has some design of improving his Genius in painting and as soon as he has procured material you shall have a sample of his performance. . . .

Daphney appears to be much better reconciled to a State of Slavery since her sons arrival upon the whole I believe there is not a Happier Set of Negros in any Kitchen in the Provence and so much for my Domesticks of the lower order.
Barnes continued to mention Prince and his drawing in letters to Smith, saying that friends “would Esteem it as a Curiosity.” In March 1770 she wrote:
my Limner…is a most surprizing instance of the force of natural Genius for without the least instruction or improvment he has taken several Faces which are thought to be very well done he has taken a Coppy of my Picture which I think has more of my resemblance then Coplings
Barnes obviously meant painter John Singleton Copley, whose portrait of Smith is now at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Barnes's words imply that Copley had painted her as well, but I can't find any confirmation of that. (Copley's portrait of a black man, probably painted in England after the war, appears above, for lack of anything better.) Back to Prince:
He is now taking his own face which I will certainly send you as it must be valued as a curiosity by any Friend you shall please to bestow it upon. . . .

We are at great Loss for proper materials. at Present he has worked only with Crayons and them very bad ones and we are so ignorant as not to know what they are to be laid on. He has hetherto used Blue Paper but I think something better may be found out.

If you should meet in your Travils with any one who is a Proficient in the art I wish you would make some inquerys into these perticulas for People in general think Mr. Copling will not be willing to give him any instruction and you know there is nobody else in Boston that does any thing at the Business. . . .

You Laugh now and think this is one of Mr. Barnes Scheems, but you are quite mistaken it is intirely my own, and as it is the only one I ever ingag’d in I shall be greatly disapointed if it does not succeed, I cannot dismis this Subject without acquainting you that this this surprizing Genius has every qualification to render him a good Servent, Sober deligent and Faithfull and I believe as he was Born in our family he is of Tory Principle but of that I am not quite so certain as he had not yet declar’d himself.
Prince finished Barnes’s portrait in early May, and on 11 May she shipped it to England with Capt. James Scott. Again, she wrote with a mix of what seems like genuine admiration but also utter condescension for this young artist she had come to own:
I freely own that my expectations are rather heightened then deminished tho I am not so far determin’d to be at any expence on his account till I find other Peoples Judgment concur with mine tis for this reason I have desired you to give your opinion freely and you may depend upon it I will be govern’d by your advice. for supposing he is not qualified for a Painter he may be otherwise made a very usefull Servant.
Perhaps there are more Barnes letters (these come from the Library of Congress) that finish this story. When the war began, the Barnes family left Massachusetts. Smith, then remarried to Ralph Inman, remained. I have no idea what happened to Prince, his mother Daphney, or his artistic work.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

New research has identified this artist as Prince Demah (Barnes), and as of now there are three portraits in museums attributed to him.