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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Friday, February 21, 2020

Peale’s Portrait of an Elderly Black Man

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, people believed this painting by Charles Willson Peale was a portrait of William Lee, enslaved at Mount Vernon for the last thirty years of George Washington’s life.

Peale and Lee did cross paths. Peale first visited Mount Vernon in the early 1770s, when Lee was a teenaged house servant. Peale returned thirty years later, as his biographer Charles Coleman Sellers wrote in 1947:
The travellers made a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon [in 1804], Peale full of reminiscences of his visits there in the General's lifetime. All that remained now of the family was one slave, old Billy Lee, Washington's body servant through the war, whom Peale found in an outbuilding, a cripple now, cobbling shoes. The two sat down alone together and talked of past days and of the important subject of good health.
Lee became free on Washington’s death, but he was disabled by bad knees and remained on the estate for the rest of his life.

Peale kept a diary in 1804, so I presume that was the basis of this vignette. It would be nice to know exactly what Peale himself wrote of his conversation with Lee.

C. W. Peale died in 1827 at the age of eighty-five. The museum he‘d assembled on the upper floor of what is now Independence Hall was broken up in 1854. In the ensuing sale a man named Charles S. Ogden bought a Peale painting of the young George Washington and what he thought was “a portrait in oil, by the same artist, of Bill Lee, familiarly known as ‘Billy,’ Washington’s favorite military servant during the war for Independence.”

That identification reflects how Washington’s celebrity made Americans fascinated in his former slaves—or supposed former slaves. In 1835 an elderly enslaved woman named Joice Heth played the role of Washington’s former nursemaid, over 160 years old, for paying audiences in New York. Until recently, a painting in a Spanish museum was widely but not wisely identified as showing Washington’s cook, Hercules Posey.

Sometimes those stories were more accurate. In 1845, a New Hampshire journalist interviewed Oney Judge, who had escaped from the President’s Philadelphia mansion in 1796.

In that atmosphere, people appear to have decided that the elderly black man Peale painted must have had some connection to Washington. Or maybe the exhibitors realized that making that claim made their painting and the museum more valuable. William Lee, by then mentioned in memoirs and popular histories as “Billy Lee,” was the most famous elderly black man from Mount Vernon, so people attached his name to the picture.

In 1892, Ogden donated the two paintings to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. At some point, and I’m not sure when, scholars realized that the painting that Ogden believed showed William Lee was actually Peale’s 1819 portrait of a man named Yarrow Mamout. Peale described the sitting in detail in his diary.

Mamout had been born in Guinea, brought to Maryland as a slave, and freed around age sixty. He became a well known businessman and property owner in Washington, D.C. in the early republic. He maintained his Islamic faith, making this the first portrait of an individual Muslim American. In his eighties, Mamout claimed to be even older—140 years old, which was probably why Peale painted him.

In concentrating its holdings on documents, the H.S.P. transferred the Mamout painting to the Philadelphia History Museum and then recently assented to its sale to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns other Peale portraits. But none of William Lee.

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