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’m really not sleeping now. My trusty iPad for painting without clean up.
I did this with Art Set Pro app.
When I started to answer calls for artists I was given an opportunity to have a solo show on the Lower East hip lounge the Sapphire Lounge. You know when you are new to all this you jump at anything. My first solo show!!!
Challenge #1 – transporting a lot of paintings from Queens to NYC. Trying to save money I ended up with a small van and a very interesting driver who was able to fit all the paintings in the van. Challenge #1 no problem.
Challenge #2 – unloading paintings as the rain started to come down. Oh no the manager is not in the lounge now…got to wait. After a half hour the manager’s assistant showed and helped unload. Challenge #2 no problem.
Challenge #3 – Hang paintings. PROBLEM! Okay the manager’s assistant was not really willing to help me. I was alone and frustrated and always relied on my son. Now the assistant is an old man from another country that I don’t remember. He comes look at my work. He stares quietly. Then says “I have to get my tools to help you”. Turns out he is a traditional painter. He told me he liked my work and my clouds were beautiful. I guess he was happy to see art that he could understand. Challenge #3 revised to no problem.
So we hung it all and I stood back to admire the walls. The manager walks in and says great. This is my opening night of my first solo show. Things are good. Then the manager tells me that tonight is a special night at the lounge:
IT’S GOING TO BE A RAPPER CONTEST!
My heart sunk as I thought this is really going clash with my landscapes and rap music. I learned the lesson of match your venue to your art. But a miracle happened.
I saw the back of a very large man and he was looking at my paintings in silence. I went up to him. He was a rapper and he was the organizer of the contest. We looked at each other and he smiled and said “did you do these paintings”. I timidly said “yes”. His smile got larger as he pointed to the big cloud. “These are beautiful!” I could not believe my ears. He was emotional looking at my work.
I left the lounge that night with the rappers thanking me for the beautiful art for their show. MY WORK TRANSCENDED CULTURES! WOW!
I’m dealing with the rejection of the portrait I’ve been working on the past week. I showed the client the way I have been progressing with bringing out a spiritual feeling for the woman in the portrait. She committed suicide a few weeks ago. It is a very sad story but I want the portrait to show how much she gave to others.
So here’s how it goes. The client looks disappointed. I know it doesn’t really look like her. I’m working with a 1″photo on a Mass card. Its just a sketch. I tell him that I am not a photorealist painter. Now he says he wants the picture to look like her. He graciously says it will be alright if I don’t do it. Arrow in the heart. My Mind: you are a failure in this. Every great painting goes out the door. YOU ARE A TERRIBLE ARTIST!!!
Then I start to go into compulsive need to prove. But I hear a voice in my head saying WAIT. If he’s looking for a realistic portrait I’m not the artist for him. I have sold a lot of portraits and the buyers loved them. My potraits are special because I paint the person I feel. MAYBE I’M REALLY GOOD!!!
Rejection is not about me. People are allowed to ask for what they want. If I can’t do I must tell the truth. I don’t have to be winning all the time. Put the ego to bed. I may not be able to get it right for him.
Rejection can take you down. I was asked to draw a baby portrait. I spent all night on it. The grandmother looked at it with disgust. She threw it at me. She was nasty anyway.
I don’t do commissioned portraits anymore. The present one is for a friend. Even friends can reject our art. The fact is people should just take a good portrait with a camera. Or look for an artist skilled in realism. But you will not get the beauty of their spirit.