A self-portrait by Charles Willson Peale.

Arts & Antiques

Unusual Peale Portrait is a Rare Acquisition

Philadelphia Museum of Art adds significant piece to its American collection

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Formal portraits of African-Americans were exceeding rare in the early 19th century. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has recently acquired such a painting, however. And it’s by revered artist Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827).

The painting of Yarrow Mamout is an important acquisition for the PMA and its collection of American art. Crafted by Peale in 1819, the portrait was first exhibited in Peale’s museum in Independence Hall. Peale was one of the most renowned American artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819. Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741-1827. Oil on canvas. 24 x 20 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Depicting an aged man who had been born in Guinea in western Africa, taken into slavery in the American colonies and later manumitted, or freed by his owner, it is one of the earliest known works to depict a freed slave in the United States and the earliest known painting of a Muslim in America.

This new acquisition has just been placed on view at the PMA, off the Great Stair Hall in the first gallery toward the American Wing. It has been purchased from the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

“The name Charles Willson Peale is closely associated with Philadelphia’s prominence as the leading artistic center in late 18th- and early 19th-century America,” says PMA director Timothy Rub. “Although Peale’s work is well represented in our collection, his portrait of Yarrow Mamout is distinctive because it is one of the earliest and certainly one of the most sympathetic portraits of an African-American to be found in the history of American art.

“Peale was especially drawn to this remarkable man, not only because of his advanced age (he was reputed to be 140 years old) but also because of his remarkable personal history: a freed slave who had achieved prosperity and was well known to the citizens of Washington, D.C., where the artist painted this portrait. It is an exceptional painting that tells an equally exceptional story.”

Peale’s Museum, which is widely acknowledged to have been the first museum in the United States, occupied the upper floors and tower of Independence Hall from 1802 until 1827. In 1854, when its collections were dispersed, the portrait of Mamout was misidentified and auctioned as “Washington’s servant” to Charles S. Ogden, who donated the picture to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1892. The painting entered the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum in 1999 when it received by transfer much of the HSP’s collection of art and artifacts.

Peale was nearly 80 years old when he went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal funding for his museum and to paint “portraits of distinguished public characters” such as Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay for his portrait gallery. Along with his dedication to healthy habits, Peale had a keen and abiding interest in longevity, and while in Washington he heard of a former slave said to be of an incredibly advanced age.

Peale went out of his way to find and paint Yarrow Mamout at the home that Mamout owned in Georgetown. Modern research shows that Mamout, a Muslim from Guinea and literate in Arabic, was taken into bondage in the colonies about 1752 and freed after 45 years in slavery. He was not as old as Peale believed him to be, but his sprightly condition at such an advanced age (probably about 83) was remarkable for this period. His knit cap, serving to keep him warm during Peale’s mid-winter portrait session, may also represent headgear from the region of Africa from which he came.

Peale’s diary describes Yarrow Mamout as a cheerful man notable for his “industry, frugality, and sobriety,” and observes: “He professes to be a Mahometan, and is often seen and heard in the streets singing praises to God–and, conversing with him, he said man is no good unless his religion comes from his heart.”

A self-portrait by Charles Willson Peale.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns the most comprehensive collection of works by Charles Willson Peale and his legendary family of artists, including his brother James, his sons Raphaelle, Rembrandt, and Titian, and his numerous grandchildren. “This painting adds a new dimension to our collection of Peale’s work at the end of his life, when he enjoyed a spectacular artistic renaissance,” says Kathleen A. Foster, the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Senior Curator of American Art. “We find it wonderful that Peale so esteemed Yarrow and added his portrait to the gallery of distinguished individuals in his museum.”

In order to purchase this unique painting in Peale”s oeuvre, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is deaccessioning nine works from its collection of American art. Five paintings will be sold in New York on November 30 through auction at Christie”s, whose chairman, Marc Porter, helped advise the Philadelphia History Museum on the sale of the Peale portrait. The remaining works, including two chairs and two Charles Willson Peale portraits, will be sold at a later date. The deaccessioned works are: Portrait of a Lady, c. 1915, William Merritt Chase; Mrs. John Bayard (Margaret Hodge), 1780, Charles Willson Peale; Col. John B. Bayard, 1781, Charles Willson Peale; Head of a Girl in a Hat with a Black Rosette, n.d., Mary Stevenson Cassatt; Italy, c. 1872-74, George Inness; Evening Landscape, c. 1868, George Inness; Still Life with Fruit, c. 1850-70, Severin Roesen; Side Chair, c. 1755-1760, artist/maker unknown.