In this portrait, an older man looks directly at us with a
gentle smile. There is wisdom in his eyes and warmth in his
expression. His rosy cheeks and the glint in his eyes suggest
his lively personality. He wears a blue coat with shiny brass
buttons and a heavy overcoat, indicating he may have just
come in from the cold. His knit cap suggests a kufi, a hat
traditionally worn by African Muslim men.
Yarrow Mamout (around 1736–1823) was brought in bondage from Guinea in West Africa to Maryland around 1752, when he was a teenager (see map on page 4). By the time this portrait was made, he had endured forty-five years of enslavement, gained his freedom, purchased his son’s freedom, bought a house, and held stock in a bank. Devoted to his Muslim faith throughout his life, Mamout was literate in both Arabic and English.
In the winter of 1818–19, the artist Charles Willson Peale traveled to Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, to paint portraits of prominent figures for exhibition in his museum in Philadelphia. While there, he heard about Yarrow Mamout, who was rumored to be 140 years old (though he was actually around 83). Peale was 77 years old at the time and was interested in what contributed to a long, healthy life. He set out to find Mamout and paint his picture.
Yarrow Mamout was manumitted (legally freed) in the 1790s, becoming a well-known member of the capital’s Free Black community of about 400 people in the Georgetown neighborhood. He reportedly worked for fixed wages during the day and spent nights making nets, baskets, and other items for sale. When he died in 1823, his obituary read, “it is known to all that knew him, that he was industrious, honest, and moral.” Peale displayed this portrait in his museum to illustrate such character. Two centuries later, Mamout remains a role model of perseverance and strength.
Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827) believed in the power of knowledge. If people could understand the world around them, they could improve their community and its future. To this end, he opened Peale’s Museum in 1786 in the heart of Philadelphia to educate, entertain, and inspire the public. Museum visitors could see natural history specimens, Peale’s painted portraits, and new inventions.
Peale is best remembered today as an artist, but he was also a scientist, soldier, politician, and inventor. He fought in the Revolutionary War and wanted to help the new nation thrive. Peale felt that establishing an American art tradition was important to the country’s success and helped found its first art school. He taught many of his family members to paint, forming the nation’s first artistic dynasty.
Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art