RACE MATTERS: Seeing the Black Figure in the European TraditionLondon
Free Women of Colour with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape, ca. 1770–96
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
Gift of Mrs. Carll H. de Silver in memory of her husband, by exchange and gift of George S. Hellman, by exchange, 2010.59
Acquired in 2010 from Robilant+Voena
The Italian painter Agostino Brunias traveled to Dominica in the British West Indies where he painted scenes of the island under the patronage of the colonial Governor Sir William Young. For more than twenty years, Brunias chronicled the various racial “types” that he encountered in the Caribbean while emphasizing the strata of Black people from light to dark skinned, slave to free. His was an idealized view of the colonial slave society through which he moved, revealing nothing of the harsh realities and brutalities of the lived experiences of slaves. Free Women of Colour with their Children and Servants in a Landscape is an unusual depiction of free Blacks characterized by their elegant clothing. Clothing and skin colour were in important signifiers in Brunias’s interpretations of Black Caribbean life, differentiating social status among Black people and between Blacks and Whites. Mixed race people were generally depicted in elevated roles in Brunias’s Caribbean universe, and this is no exception. The three mixed race women are the central figures, the free women of colour, and the darker skinned male and female servants are peripheral. Although Brunias’s paintings were often used as pro-slavery propaganda that offered a palatable view of the colonies for British consumption, works like this one point to the complexities of slave societies, their internal hierarchies, and the possibilities of Black agency and freedom in the face of systematic oppression.*
For more on this work, visit: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/197252
*See Mia L. Bagneris, Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias, (Manchester, 2018).