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!!!
In the past few weeks my painting has morphed into an abstract landscape that is a new style from my impressionist one.
The truth is that in the last 4 months I’ve been withdrawing from a very powerful antidepressant after being on it for 16 years. Last year I realized how it was making me worse and I am not depressed anymore. So powerful is this drug that my brain has zapping which feels like electrical shocks are piercing the cells. I’m dizzy, have brain fog and my legs cramped so badly I couldn’t walk for 3 weeks. But now the real me is emerging. I can finally feel myself coming out.
So I actually did this painting in withdrawal. And I also did the previous painting in withdrawal. And the experience was a struggle to focus my vision (blurred vision was a part of withdrawal). But here it is. I believe the real me is finally emerging.
THIS IS THE FINISHED PAINTING!!!
I have taken a quiet time the last couple of months to restore my mind. As an artist and inspired individual where do I go from here. How do I use art to heal this broken world?
The world is broken because we don’t think creatively. Every person has this ability to be naturally creative. It’s suppressed and replaced with following formulas that don’t work for everything. Schools don’t engage students to think. They memorize to pass tests. The individual is lost.
Art has been tossed out of people’s lives. Not important. Today’s craze of adult coloring books is a farce. Again no creative thought is used. Just color in someone else’s creativity.
There is a fear of being creative. Being creative is not “keeping up with the Jones”. Not following the pack.
I am mentoring a young woman artist. A beautiful Latino woman who has given up her art. I looked into her eyes and I saw a spark of hope that she could do her life differently.
I’m going to get her to think like an artist.
PEACE TO THE WORLD
In my teen years during the 1960’s, if you put a piece of paper in front of me it was instantly covered by some drawing from my imagination. The 1960’s were turbulent times. Race riots were explosive headline news daily across the country. There was fear and hate I didn’t understand but was fed.
It was the time of school busing and I was to be bused to a junior high school far away with a lot of black teens. I heard about knives in the schools and being told to carry extra money to pay off bullies
I ended up being sent to a boarding school because I was a truant for a year and left back so my mom sent me away to have the nuns deal with me. And I would have to go to school.
Actually I ended up doing well with discipline and I had company with a lot of wealthy girls who were problems to their families. We were misfits trapped in a nunnery in Sag Habor Long Island. But I have to say I did well in school. I only tried to escape once!
Anyway, back to this post of the racial issues. I ended up being accepted by the High School of Art & Design in NYC. My major was fashion illustration. And I always was doing a doodle or drawing every day. My mom rescued boxes of my work and that was the tip of the iceberg.
So one day I had my markers and paper and in my imagination I saw two young black girls and it started with a doodle and became this small drawing. I called it “Sisters”. It was in my mom’s apartment.
In 2005 I found it and showed it to my friends at work. The paper was old but the drawing was strong. One of the secretaries loved it and she offered me an excellent price for it. It spoke to her as a black woman. It was how I related to African Americans in 1965 as a teenager who despised violence and hate. I didn’t want to have fear and in a doodle I saw love.
August 12th I had carpel tunnel surgery on my right hand. It’s my dominant hand. So I took the time to relax and heal. However, it eventually took me down the mental rabbit hole. I ended up depressed, lonely and blocked creatively. It was like my mind was empty. A dust bin.
I couldn’t think and forget posting on my blog.
Weeks were passing and now I have feelings of failure. I want to write a blog post but I feel stupid. It’s been forever. I’m a terrible blogger with an artist block!!!!
And then I realized that my blog is about coming back from an artist block. Isn’t life always about the comebacks.
The artist comeback can be a Phoenix rising. A new path, a different story. And actually I have a new theme I started in my paintings. I have added figures to my landscapes. The figures are faceless children ( they are me or you) and they are escaping into landscapes. This is the first of a group that I will be working on.
I purchased Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go ” 15 years ago. It’s my favorite inspirational book for what life is about. So this morning my daily writing practice turned to the voice of Dr. Seuss.
“OH THE PLACES YOU’LL GO…”
Oh the people
It’s a journey worth taking
But it’s not a small feat
Though you may want to quit
Hide your head in the sand
If the fear takes over
You can hold someone’s hand
So be courageous and go towards the light
Never use avoidance
To deal with your plight
This world isn’t pretty
In fact it is sad
When you keep giving to others
It negates some of the bad
As an artist standing at the turning point
Not knowing how far
Keep being creative
Be the artist you are