Published: February 1, 2011
The Brooklyn Museum has acquired, by purchase from the London Gallery Robilant + Voena, Agostino Brunias’s (1730‱796) painting “Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape,” circa 1764‹6, a portrait of the Eighteenth Century mixed-race colonial elite of the island of Dominica in the West Indies. Brunias, a London-based Italian painter, left England at the height of his career to chronicle Dominica, then one of Britain’s newest colonies in the Lesser Antilles.
The painting depicts two richly dressed mixed-race women, one of whom was possibly the wife of the artist’s patron. They are shown accompanied by their mother and their children, along with eight African servants, as they walk on the grounds of a sugar plantation, one of the agricultural estates that were Dominica’s chief source of wealth. Brunias documents colonial women of color as privileged and prosperous. The two wealthy sisters are distinguished from their mother and servants by their fitted European dresses.
The painting is a Caribbean version of contemporaneous English works made popular by artists such as William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, whose art often depicts the landed gentry engaged in leisurely pursuits. “Free Women of Color” and other Caribbean paintings by Brunias celebrate the diversity of European, Caribbean and African influences in the region.
Although Brunias was originally commissioned to promote upper-class plantation life, his works soon assumed a more subversive, political role throughout the Caribbean as endorsements of a free, anti-slavery society, exposing the artificialities of racial hierarchies in the West Indies.
Among the artist’s supporters was Haiti’s liberator François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, who wore on his waistcoat 18 buttons decorated with reproductions of Brunias’s paintings.
“Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape” will go on view on March 7, in the European galleries on the portraiture wall between contemporaneous female Spanish Colonial and French subjects.
The Brooklyn Museum is on 200 Eastern Parkway. For information, 718-638-5000 or www.brooklynmuseum.org .
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