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 09, 2016

Scipio Moorhead’s “natural genius for painting”

Back in this post I mused on the mysteries of Scipio Moorhead, subject of Eric Slauter’s article “Looking for Scipio Moorhead” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. I wrote:
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.
I still haven’t come across any Scipio Moorhead artwork, but I did find another contemporaneous remark about his artistic talent and activity.

The Rev. John Moorhead died in December 1773. Boston’s Presbyterian meetinghouse invited the Rev. David McClure to preach in his place for a while. McClure’s diary entry for 4 May 1774 reads:
Put up at the Widow [Sarah] Moorhead’s. Found the place convenient for study. The family small. The Widow is unhappily deranged. The distraction is of the melancholy cast, silent & averse to company or society. She was once an accomplished wit & beauty, tenderly beloved by her husband. Her distraction was thought to be the effect of an uncommon flow of spirits, and lively imagination, too intensely applied to reading and study.

One son and two daughters survive. The son, (Alexander) is now a surgeon in the british navy in Boston harbour. Her daughter Mary takes care of her poor mother, a negro young man does the housework. Scipio is an ingenious and serious African. He possesses a natural genius for painting, and has taken several tolerable likenesses.
Slauter noted conflicting hints about Scipio’s age, starting with his baptism in 1760. McClure’s reference to him as a “young man” in spring 1774 now stands alongside a reference to him as a “Negro man” late that year and a “likely Negro Lad” in a 1775 advertisement.

Sarah Moorhead was indeed a woman of intellect and talents. Her name appears on a pen portrait of the Rev. Cotton Mather (reproduction from Justin Winsor’s magisterial history of Boston shown above). People have often therefore speculated that she tutored Scipio in art.

It’s a pity that McClure attributed Sarah Moorhead’s depression to too much “reading and study” rather than, say, the death of her husband less than six months before.


Anonymous said...

It is rather unfortunate that even the Oxford African-American Studies Center picks up on the unsubstantiated claim that he created Phillis's portrait: http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0706/photo_essay.jsp?page=1 In trying to search for online clues about his art, my search is instead inundated with articles and digitized books including this claim, usually stated as fact.

Joan100483 said...

I believe Scipio is the artist who did the famous drawing on Phyllis Wheatley.

J. L. Bell said...

That's been the assumption based on the fact that Wheatley wrote the poem about him. The fact that Prince Demah was advertising his skills as a portrait artist in Boston in the same period means that Moorhead wasn't the only possibility, however, even if we restrict the choice to other African-Americans. We really don't know for sure.

Also, the portrait of Wheatley that survives is an engraving probably made by an engraver in London working from the portrait made in Boston. The original drawing or painting doesn't survive.