THE SLAVE PORTRAIT PAINTER “PRINCE DEMAH BARNES “

I love history and art.  But I had never heard this amazing story of a slave who became a professional portrait painter in 18th century America.  I found the story on OUT OF THE ARCHIVES – a blog exploring the Archives at the Hingham Heritage Museum.  
Henry Barnes was a distiller and manufacturer of pearl ash.  He and Christian were members of Marlborough’s financial elite and in the early 1770’s owned 3 slaves.  Prince was the son of their slave Daphney.   I’m not sure when Prince’s artistic talent became known but eventually he was supported by Christian Barnes who seeing his genius had Henry purchase Prince with a view towards improving his genius in painting “. 

PORTRAIT OF CHRISTIAN BARNES BY PRINCE DEMAH BARNES 


In a letter by Christian she writes:

“Prince is here and I am sitting to him for my picture.”

A month later in November 1769 Prince is purchased by Henry Barnes with the intention to educate and improve his talent. 

HENRY BARNES BY PRINCE DEMAH BARNES 


In 1770 Christian Barnes wrote:

Prince 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 resemblance than Coping’s. [sic].   She is referring to the famous 18th century portrait painter John Singleton Copley. 

So Prince is the first African-American professional artist in America!   For approximately 10 years he had a career as an artist.  When the Revolution came the Barnes fled and Prince enlisted in the Massachusetts militia as a free man. He was now called Prince Demah (removing “Barnes “).  He died from either smallpox or another disease on March 1778. In his will he left all he had to his mother Daphney. 

PORTRAIT OF WILLIAM DUGUID BY PRINCE DEMAH 


An amazing artist story. Never judge a person by the color of their skin but by the content of their character!!!





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