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Oldest Known Portraits of an African American Couple, Found Under a Bed, Star in New Documentary

The 1841 portraits by Franklin R. Street have been shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and appear in the new documentary The Montiers: An American Story.

Franklin R. Street, “Portrait of Hiram Charles Montier” and “Portrait of Elizabeth Brown Montier” (1841), oil on canvas, on loan from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens, III (courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In 2009, Bill and Patricia Pickens, an elderly African American couple living on Long Island, watched Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first black President of the United States. Now is the moment, they decided: it was time to make public two historic family portraits, discovered a decade earlier under the bed of their nonagenarian great-uncle Joe.

The elegant pendant portraits, from 1841, depict Bill’s great-great grandparents, Hiram Charles and Elizabeth Brown Montier, as young newlyweds in Philadelphia. They are the only known paintings by artist Franklin R. Street, and most strikingly, they are now recognized as the earliest known portraits of an African American couple.

Bill Pickens decided to loan the paintings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In The Montiers: An American Story, a new documentary about the portraits from the public television station WHYY, Pickens said he wanted young people to understand that, “even in 1840, black folks were doing their thing.” The film premiered at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on March 14.

Increasing the visibility of 19th-century African American was important to the family, especially because depictions of the ordinary lives of early black Americans are so scarce. “For at least forty years there have been exhibitions and publications on the ‘image of the Black’ in American art, so scholars have been looking for such portraits,” Kathleen Foster, senior curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, told Hyperallergic. “These are the earliest pair yet to be discovered.”

William Matthew Prior, “Portrait of Mrs. Nancy Lawson” (1843), oil on canvas, Shelburne Museum in Vermont (via Wikimedia)

The closest comparable set of portraits is of William and Nancy Lawson, painted in Boston by William Matthew Prior in 1843, currently in the collection of Vermont’s Shelburne Museum.

“There’s so little of this kind of material out there,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an art history professor at the University of Pennsylvania who curated Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 2006. “The more people know these are of value, the more they will look beneath their uncles’ beds and understand that this is a story that should be shared.”

The descendants of Hiram Charles and Elizabeth Brown Montier have an unusually strong connection to their family history. They can trace their heritage back three centuries to Humphrey Morrey, the first mayor of Philadelphia, appointed by William Penn himself.

Bill was eight years old when his mother first told him about his illustrious ancestry. When he boasted about it in elementary school, his teachers didn’t believe him. Morrey owned slaves, among them a young woman named Cremona Satterthwaite, whom he freed upon his death in 1715. Satterthwaite then worked as a house servant for the Morrey family. Eventually, she began a relationship with Humphrey’s son, Richard, which led to a common-law marriage of love. Their union resulted in five children. Hiram and Bill descend from the couple’s only daughter, Cremona Jr.

By the time Hiram and Elizabeth wed, in their early twenties, the Montier family had been free for three generations, despite the fact that some Pennsylvanians still held slaves in the 1840s.

The portraits depict the couple as elegantly-dressed and respectable, using the tropes of upper-class portraiture. Holding books to demonstrate their literacy, Hiram and Elizabeth are framed by lavish drapery and classical columns. Behind them are both a sunrise and sunset, alluding to the fact that their marriage would carry them through good and bad times.

John Singleton Copley, “Portrait of John Hancock” (1765, image via Wikimedia)

It did. The couple produced an impressive line of descendants that filled the great stair hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art last week, in what felt like more like a family reunion than a film screening. For many who lack 19th-century images of their ancestors, the Montier portraits, and the lineage it embodies, can serve an important function.

The Montier family portraits, Shaw said, show exemplary African American forebears in a style almost reminiscent of ‘Founding Father’ portraits by Gilbert Stuart or John Singleton Copley. “Viewing painted portraits of named African Americans like the Montiers, who lived dynamic, successful, and free lives in the antebellum period,” Shaw added, “is just as empowering, I believe, as seeing the stunningly brilliant contemporary portraits of our singular African American President and First Lady, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.”

Left: Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley (2018, image © Kehinde Wiley, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution); right: Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald (2018, image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

In the wake of the recent unveiling of the Obama portraits at the National Portrait Gallery last month, it is tempting to compare the images of these two couples, despite obvious differences in style and circumstance. The Montiers were painted by the same artist and conceived as pendants, while Barack and Michelle selected different artists, each working in a distinctive style and format. The Montiers were commemorating a personal event, the Obamas a public one. And before being tucked away beneath Uncle Joe’s bed, Hiram and Elizabeth probably hung in the family parlor, rather than the National Portrait Gallery.

Still, according to Deesha Dyer, who worked as a White House Social Secretary under the Obamas and participated in last week’s documentary debut, there is a historic link between the two pairs. “There would be no Barack and Michelle Obama if it wasn’t for these two,” Dyer said. African American couples have shaped our country’s history, whether their stories are widely known or not.

The documentary The Montiers: An American Story is available for free at the website of WHYY.

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