Prince Demah Barnes: Portraitist and slave in colonial Boston

Amelia Peck and Paula M. Bagger

Amelia Peck and Paula M. Bagger Art

At first glance, the small oil portrait of a handsome man in a flowered dressing gown looked somewhat unprepossessing (Fig. 1). Hanging on the wall of a dealer’s booth at an antiques show in 2010, it had a “folksy” appeal, but wasn’t an obvious candidate for acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, as a curator in the midst of developing an exhibition concerning the worldwide textile trade between 1500 and 1800, I was particularly taken with the chintz banyan worn by the sitter and asked for more information about the picture.The dealer had it on consignment from a person who had purchased it from the family of the subject, William Duguid; it had traveled down through five generations before being sold. In its original frame, the painting was accompanied by a heart-shaped brooch thought to be the one pinned to Duguid’s gown (Fig. 2). The stretcher was signed by the then unknown Prince Demah Barnes and dated 1773 (Fig. 3).

The whole package proved so appealing that we brought the painting to the museum for examination and further research. It was certainly a rare example of a vernacular American portrait painted before the Revolutionary War. Initial research in the basic sources didn’t reveal any mention of an artist named Prince Demah Barnes, but after finding evidence that William Duguid was a Scottish immigrant textile merchant who advertised his imported goods in the Boston papers in the early 1770s, I was convinced that we needed to acquire the painting. It would be an interesting addition to the American Wing’s collection of eighteenth-century portraits, especially in comparison with contemporary works by Boston artists like John Singleton Copley, and would be a terrific addition to my upcoming textile exhibition Interwoven Globe.

During the run of the exhibition I received a letter from Paula Bagger, a Boston attorney, historian, and co-author of this article. She had seen our painting on the museum’s website. As a director of the Hingham (Massachusetts) Historical Society, she had been researching Prince Demah Barnes for several years, since the historical society owned two portraits thought to be by Prince, an enslaved African-American, of his owners Christian and Henry Barnes.1 The Barnes portraits (Figs. 4, 5) are unsigned, making our portrait the first painting Bagger had found signed by Prince. She hoped it would offer proof that the historical society’s two paintings were also by his hand.

The Hingham paintings portray Henry Barnes, a distiller, manufacturer of pearl ash (an early chemical leavener), and trader in British manufactured goods, and his wife, Christian Arbuthnot Barnes. Henry and Christian, both raised in Boston, moved west to Marlborough in the early 1750s where they quickly joined that town’s financial elite. Luckily for the historical record, they were prolific correspondents, and many of their letters have survived, some of which tell the story of Prince’s artistic career.

In December 1769 Christian wrote to her friend Elizabeth Murray Smith, a fellow merchant, that Henry had recently purchased the son of their slave Daphney and confided their “design of improving his genius in painting.”2 Daphney’s son, Prince, was a young man in his late twenties and not a stranger to the Barnes household, but we know little about his life before Henry purchased him. He and his mother were baptized in Boston’s Trinity Church in May 1745,3 and he may have spent his early years on Boston’s South Shore, where Christian’s relatives lived. For now, Prince enters the historical record through Christian’s letters of 1769 and 1770.4

On March 15, 1770, she wrote to Elizabeth Smith: “He is a most surprising instance of the force of natural Genius for without the least instruction or improvement he has taken several faces which are thought to be very well done. He has taken a copy of my picture which I think has more of my resemblance than Copling’s [sic]. . . . We are at a 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. . . . If you should meet in your travels with anyone who is proficient in the art I wish you would make some inquiries in these particulars 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 anything at the business.”5

In May 1770 Christian sent one of Prince’s pictures to Smith, who was then in London, with a request that she solicit a professional opinion.6 In October 1770 Henry Barnes took Prince with him on a trip to London, and in February 1771 he reported that Prince was receiving instruction from a “Mr. Pine who has taken him purely for his genius.”7 This was likely British portraitist and historical painter Robert Edge Pine, who was working in London at the time and later settled in the United States.

Prince was not in London long, but the trip exposed him to new experiences and attitudes. Pine was a supporter of English radical politics and the American independence movement, while the Barnes family was loyalist. The abolition of slavery was an issue of growing importance in England (the following year an English court held that slavery was not supported by English common law), and a number of free black men were achieving prominence in the arts and letters. It has been suggested that Pine’s father, the noted engraver John Pine, was black or of mixed race,8 and this may have affected Prince’s relationship to his teacher.

Henry showed a sensitivity to these currents when he expressed his fear that Prince might “attempt his freedom” in a letter to Elizabeth Smith, adding that he wished she were in London with her own slave, Bill, “for I do not let [Prince] converse with any of his own colour here.”9

Prince did return to Boston, however, in July 1771, and brief references in the correspondence suggest that he divided his time between Boston and Marlborough. In March 1772 Christian reported that Prince had “taken five pictures from life since his return, three of them as good likenesses as ever Mr. Copling took,” and that she planned a trip to Boston “to recommend our Limner to the Publick.”10

Between January and November 1773, an advertisement appeared at least nine times in the Boston News-Letter: “Negro Artist. At Mr. McLean’s, Watch-Maker, near the Town House, is a Negro man whose extraordinary Genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London; he takes Faces at the lowest Rates. Specimens of his Performance may be seen at said Place.”11

In February 1773 Prince painted the portrait of William Duguid, the young Scottish textile merchant residing in Boston, signing it “Prince Demah Barnes.” That summer he copied Copley’s portrait of Christian’s friend Elizabeth Smith (now Inman),12 and he may have also made the Barnes portraits around this time. It is not clear what Prince’s legal status was during this period. He was working in Boston and receiving commissions through the Barneses’ social connections. He used “Barnes” as a surname but joined with another, perhaps West African name, “Demah.” Henry’s unwillingness as a loyalist to comply with Boston’s non-importation agreements had begun to create trouble for the Barneses in the late 1760s and by the mid-1770s matters had come to a head. They left for England in late 1775; their goods were confiscated; and Henry was banished by an act of the General Court in 1778. Most of their possessions, including the family portraits and Daphney, Prince’s mother, were left at their Marlborough estate.13 The portraits of Henry and Christian both have damage in the area of the paintings where their hearts would have been–the lore is that they were attacked by the patriots who came to seize the estate.

Prince considered himself a free man after the Barnes family fled Boston, but whether legal papers to this effect were signed is unknown. In April 1777 Prince–now just Prince Demah–enlisted in Colonel Thomas Crafts Jr.’s artillery regiment of the Massachusetts militia. His name appears in regimental records through early 1778.14 Likely he fell ill (the regiment’s barracks in Boston’s West End were close to the provincial hospital and smallpox was endemic),15 and on March 11, 1778, he wrote his will. As “Prince Demah, limner” and a “free Negro,” he left all he had to his mother, “Daphne Demah.”16 One week later, he died, his burial recorded at Trinity Church.17

The Barnes portraits were brought to the Metropolitan Museum in April 2014, and examined using x-radiographs and infrared reflectography. Conservator Dorothy Mahon concluded that they were painted by the same hand as the museum’s likeness of Duguid.18 But while all were painted by Prince, the three paintings differ somewhat in appearance, likely due to the circumstances under which each was done. We believe that Duguid actually sat for Prince. Christian’s portrait is clearly a copy of a Copley portrait of her. Not only does she mention in her March 15, 1770, letter that Prince copied her Copley portrait, but her painting closely resembles his other Boston portraits of about the same time. Especially striking is its similarity to the 1770 painting of Mrs. Alexander Cumming (Elizabeth Goldthwait), a relative of Henry Barnes (Fig. 6).

The portrait of Henry is a little less clear-cut. Dorothy Mahon believes it may have been from life, writing: “The x-radiograph of Mr. Barnes is very different in character” from that of Mrs. Barnes, but “when compared to the x-radiograph of the portrait of William Duguid, reveals that the paint application and modeling are very similar in handling in these two portraits.”19

While Henry’s portrait does have a more relaxed quality and could have been taken from life, its format is quite similar to contemporary Copley portraits, such as that of Thomas Flucker, a fellow Boston merchant and loyalist (Fig. 7). Certainly, Prince would have seen many Copley portraits among the Barneses’ circle and could have either copied an actual Copley, or painted Barnes directly in Copley’s fashionable portrait style.

Prince’s story and canvases point to the likelihood of uncovering other significant contributions to the visual arts made by enslaved African Americans in the eighteenth century. While some are recorded as working as printmakers, silhouette cutters, and stone carvers,20 the only other recorded fine artist is Scipio Moorhead, the slave of a Boston minister who is thought to have drawn the portrait of Phyllis Wheatley that appeared as the frontispiece to a volume of her poems.21 Until the discovery of Prince’s work, the earliest African-American portraitist in oils was thought to be Joshua Johnson, whose mother was enslaved and whose father, a white man, purchased and freed him while he was still a young man. Largely self-taught, Johnson lived in the Baltimore area, where he painted appealing portraits of the Maryland elite (Fig. 8).

There is more to be learned about Prince and his career, such as where and how he spent his early life, how he started to paint, and whether his few months at Pine’s studio in London had a significant influence on his style and abilities. We are on the hunt for other paintings that might be attributed to him. With continuing study, we hope to enlarge the story of this singular American artist.

The authors thank Carrie Rebora Barratt, John Hannigan, Erica Hirshler, Jane Kamensky, and Ellen Miles for their helpful insights into Prince’s career.

AMELIA PECK is the Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

PAULA M. BAGGER is a practicing lawyer, amateur historian, and director of the Hingham Historical Society in Hingham, Massachusetts.

1 The portraits of Christian and Henry Barnes were given to the Hingham Historical Society by Susan Barker Willard, a founder and early benefactor. They had descended to her through the Barker line–Deborah Barker of Hingham was Christian’s cousin. 2 Christian Barnes to Elizabeth Smith, December 23, 1769, Christian Barnes papers, 1768-1784, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 3 Trinity Church (Boston) records, 1730-1998, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. 4 Christian Barnes to Elizabeth Smith, December 23, 1769, Christian Barnes papers, 1768-1784. 5 Christian Barnes to Elizabeth Smith, March 15, 1770, ibid. “Copling” is a misspelling of John Singleton Copley’s last name. Copley appears to have painted a portrait of Christian (now lost) that Prince seems to have copied. He likely made more than one copy of Christian’s portrait, since according to the letter cited here, he was only working in “crayons” (pastels) at the time but had already made a copy of Christian’s portrait. 6 Christian Barnes to Elizabeth Smith, May 11, 1770, Christian Barnes papers, 1768-1784. A mutual friend, Janette Barclay, also in London at the time, wrote of taking Prince’s picture to “Mr. Strange,” perhaps Sir Robert Strange (1721-1792), a well-known engraver, for his opinion, although no record that she did so has yet surfaced. Janette Barclay to Elizabeth Smith, undated, Murray-Robbins family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. 7 Henry Barnes to Elizabeth Smith, February 12, 1771, Murray-Robbins family papers. 8 The suggestion is most often made in Masonic histories and is based on William Hogarth’s c. 1755 painting of Pine. See, for example, Andrew Prescott, “John Pine: A Social Craftsman,” Masonic Quarterly, vol. 10 (July 2004). 9 Henry Barnes to Elizabeth Smith, February 12, 1771, Murray-Robbins family papers. 10 Christian Barnes to Elizabeth Inman, March 9, 1772, Christian Barnes papers, 1768-1784. 11 Boston News-Letter, January 7, 14, 21; February 4, 11; March 11, 25; October 28; and November 4 and 26, 1773. Tory in its sympathies, the News-Letter, was also the paper in which Henry Barnes placed advertisements for his importing business. 12 Christian Barnes to Elizabeth Inman, July 22, 1773, Christian Barnes papers, 1768-1784. 13 E. F. to Christian Barnes, June 9 and 16, 1776, James Murray Robbins family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. The General Court awarded the Barneses’ household furnishings to General Henry Knox, whose own belongings were in then-besieged Boston. Province Laws 1775, ch. 350, 7 November 1775, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston. 14 Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War (Mass. Secretary of the Commonwealth, 1896), vol. 4, p. 658. 15 Orderly Book of the Regiment of Artillery raised for the Defence of the Town of Boston, ed William Russell and James Kimball (Salem Press, 1876). 16 Last Will and Testament of Prince Demah, March 11, 1778, admitted to probate, April 2, 1778, docket no. 16505, Suffolk County Probate Records, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston. 17 Trinity Church records, 1730-1998. 18 Examination and Treatment Record, Paintings Conservation Department, Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2014. 19 Ibid. 20 Caitlin Galante-DeAngelis Hopkins, “Pompe Stevens, Enslaved Artisan,” Common-Place, vol. 13, no. 3 (Spring 2013), at 21 Moorhead is thought to have been taught by his mistress, Sarah Moorhead; see Africana: the Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, ed. Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates (Basic Civitas Books, New York, 1999).