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!!!
I became aware of the Russian artist in 2005. His paintings were hypnotic and colorful. Modernist for the time of early 20th Century. I posted many of them on my Flickr site as images that I admired in their strength and power.
But his story was more intriguing than I could ever imagine. His artistry included more than painting. He was an architect, a theatre set and costume designer for the Russian ballet including the infamous Sergei Diaghilev in 1898. He also studied law and history. His painting “The Messenger” 1897 earned him the title of artist securing him a place in the history of Russian art.
But it was an article on the website Atlas Obscura titled “Why the Soviets Sponsored a Doomed Expedition to a Hollow earth Kingdom “. How a search for the hidden land of Shambahala turned into a geopolitical power play. By Dimitra Nikolaidou.
I learned that Roerich was a believer in mysticism and upon arriving in America joined the Theosophy Society. He became famous in his mystical theories and had many important political followers who participated in his teachings in New York City during the 1920s. He and his wife Helena and his 2 sons were eventually sponsored by the U.S. to search for the underground city of Shambahala in Asia in 1923. That expedition would take 5 years and the Roerichs would be followed by Soviet spies as well as British and Mongolian spies in what became the “Great Chase”.
Shambahala was believed to have special weapons that would make the finders able to survive apocalyptic future.
I am not going to give a spoiler alert but Roerich ventured again in 1934 to find the hidden city. Check out Atlas obscura for more. Here are the incredible spiritual paintings that are actually at the Nicholas Roerich Museum (his home) on West 107 th Street NYC.
Sometimes I think I’m alone in my artist block. The ability to see that others have been in this position and they have gone through the pain of not creating for a long time helps me identify and not feel alone. Even hearing that a person has survived being hospitalized for a mental breakdown is inspiring and hopeful for me . I’m always in fear of having a mental breakdown. I’m afraid people will leave me for being crazy. I’m afraid of never being creative again.
I started to research artists who have had breakdowns and blocks. Here’s one that surprised me. Georgia O’Keefe.
In 1932, after falling far behind on a Radio City Music Hall mural, O’Keefe suffered an intense nervous breakdown. It was only after a period of hospitalization and NOT PAINTING FOR TWO YEARS that she was able to rekindle her life’s love of creating art.
I was blown away by this story. I’m in great company with my mental breakdowns and blocks. It happens. So what.
I’M NOT ALONE!!!!! HERE’S TO YOU GEORGIA!!
I kill a lot of paintings because I don’t know when to STOP.
A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is exploring this artistic dilemma. It is called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible ” . I t will run till September 4th.
Exhibition at Met
I’m inspired now to show my unfinished art without shame but to celebrate their presence. I am taking them out of hiding.
Will I ever finish them? Maybe. Maybe not. But they are just as important as finished art.
WHAT UNFINISHED ART ARE YOU HIDING?
EVERYONE POST YOUR UNFINISHED ART AND WE WILL ALL CELEBRATE!!
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Everyone experiences this hidden loneliness even robots.