Portrait of Yarrow Mamout
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All that is known of Yarrow Mamout, an enslaved African who died a free man at a very old age, comes from the diary of the man who painted his striking portrait.
Charles William Peale was an American portrait painter who established a museum in Philadelphia. Dedicated to American history and natural history, the museum's exhibits ranged from presidential portraits to the bones of a mastodon that Peale had unearthed. In 1819, Peale (whose son Raphaelle had painted Absalom Jones in 1810) went to Washington to record the likenesses of distinguished Americans; while there he heard about an old African man, Yarrow Mamout, who lived in Georgetown. Peale was most likely intrigued by Mamout's great age, reputedly 134 years at the time, and the fact that he was a practicing Muslim -- supposedly a rarity in 19th century America, though that question is still open to scholarly debate.
Peale wrote in his diary, "I spent the whole day and not only painted a good likeness of him, but also the drapery and background." While sitting for Peale, Mamout talked extensively about his life. He had been captured in Africa, brought to the American colonies on a ship, and sold into slavery in Maryland.
Before Peale began his second day of painting with Mamout, he visited the old woman who had been Mamout's last owner to confirm the stories he'd heard. The woman's husband had promised Mamout that if he labored industriously on the large house he was building, Mamout would be set free. The man died before the completion of the project, but his widow fulfilled his promise by drawing manumission papers for Mamout. Through years of hard work, despite a number of misfortunes, Yarrow had managed to acquire his own house and other property in Georgetown, where he was "noted for sobriety & a cheerful conduct."
Peale speculated that "the good temper of the man has contributed considerably to longevity." He wrote, "I retouched his Portrait the morning after his first setting to mark what wrinkles & lines to characterize better his Portrait...." A cheerful, industrious former slave who had lived to a healthy old age would serve to counter the growing testimonies to the horror and brutality of slavery. Yet Peale's painting captures more than cheer; sadness, or perhaps cynicism also registers on the face of this remarkable man.
Image Credit: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
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