The Brooklyn Museum has an extensive collection of Spanish Colonial painting, but the institution’s relatively new curator of European art Richard Aste knew the museum lacked the same depth in their British colonial works. Recently, Brooklyn’s premiere fine art institution announced the acquisition of a new work by Agostino Brunias, “Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape” (ca. 1764-1796), which will partially fill that gap but there is something else about the painting that makes it interesting to the contemporary viewer, namely its multicultural subjects.
The oil painting demonstrates a very different attitude towards race than we normally see in colonial art, particulary when we contrast it with Spanish colonial works, which are normally obsessed with racial classifications known by its Spanish and Portuguese term, casta. Brunias’s works are surprising in that they seem to be intrigued by difference without feeling judgmental and certainly they are more matter of fact about race than the art created by his contemporaries.
Who was Brunias? He was an 18th Roman native educated at the Academia de San Luca, who, like many Roman artists of the era, painted typical tourist works coveted by wealthy Europeans traveling through on the Grand Tour. Soon, Brunias was discovered for his draughtsmanship by Robert Adam, the renowned Scottish neo-classical architect and decorator, who called him a “bred painter” and invited the Italian to London to work in his firm. For 10 years, Brunias worked with Adam’s company until the two had a falling out over wages.
Around the same time as the Adam/Brunias tiff, the British Empire acquired new colonies in the Caribbean and they tapped the artist to travel to the West Indies to document the region. The artist arrived in these lands that were still mostly unknown to Europeans and started recording what he saw.
The world in Brunias’s canvases are of a multicultural social reality that was completely foreign not only to Europeans but also to the people in the neighboring French and Spanish colonies. The Roman artist encountered an elite class of prosperous people of color who had access to wealth and status.
“The agenda [for the painting] was to celebrate the mixed races and all the differences that were going on in the Carribean,” Este said in a phone interview. “They represent a reality that wasn’t known in Europe at the time.”
Brunias became popular among the plantation owners of the West Indies and he eventually settled in Dominica. What is unique about Brunias is that his work gained popularity in the region through the dissemination of prints, some of which ended up in Haiti, where these images of racially mixed scenes became a “call to arms” of sorts, Estes says. One craftsman turned some of the images into buttons, and the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, wore on his waistcoat 18 buttons decorated with reproductions of Brunias’s paintings.
The Art Daily offers an assessment on how Brunias’s work was perceived in the era:
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.
The work in the Brooklyn Museum was painted to be displayed in a plantation in Dominica, but eventually ended up in the collection of the English Queen’s Prime Minister, and later in the collection of the great Metropolitan Museum benefactors, Charles and Jayne Wrightsman.
The newly acquired Brooklyn Museum canvas depicts two mulatto women taking their morning walk on the grounds of a sugar plantation, which was Dominica’s chief source of wealth. Their light skin and European dresses distinguish the sisters from their mother, seen at left, and the eight African servants. One of the sisters is believed to be the wife of the plantation owner, who commissioned the work.
Estes says the art work is a typical British conversation piece, which was an informal type of group portraiture created by many leading artists of the era, including Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth. The one element that distinguishes the painting from works by other artists is that the central figures are non-white women, which was unheard of in the genre.
The painting will be featured in an upcoming Spanish colonial exhibition organized by Aste, which will tentatively take place in 2013.
Image caption: Agostino Brunias, “Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape” (ca. 1764-1796), oil on canvas, 2010.59, Gift of Mrs. Carll H. de Silver in memory of her husband, by exchange and gift of George S. Hellman, by exchange