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- Charles Willson Peale established the first public museum in America in 1784. It began as a portrait collection of Revolutionary War heroes (Peale had served with George Washington), but quickly expanded to include portraits of national heroes and other notable figures, along with scientific specimens, cultural artifacts, and objects of historical interest.
- In 1819, Peale traveled to Washington, D.C. to paint the portrait of President James Monroe and to raise funds for his museum. While there, he also completed this portrait of Yarrow Mamout, who was reputed to be 134 years old. The painting was displayed alongside portraits of famous men, celebrating the perseverance and vibrant personality of the sitter. When the portrait collection was sold in 1854, however, Mamout was misidentified as George Washington’s servant.
- Mamout had been forcibly brought to America from Guinea in West Africa, and sold a slave. He was freed many years later, in 1796. He was a devout Muslim (Muslims may have represented 10% of the total slave population in the United States in the 18th century). Yarrow eventually owned his own home and invested in bank stock to ensure a retirement income. Peale (the painter) would have been familiar with slavery, but also the rise of a free black population in Philadelphia; he depicts Yarrow Mamout as a man of dignity and wisdom.
More to think about
As Peale’s portrait of Yarrow Mamout demonstrates, works of art are often misinterpreted and misidentified, leading to a false impression of the historical past. This reminds us that official histories are often incomplete or even wrong. What questions can we ask of objects and historical narratives in order to make sure we are being fair to the past?