The earliest surviving portraits of an African American couple, Hiram and Elizabeth Brown Montier, provide a first-person perspective on their lives in nineteenth-century Philadelphia. On public view for the first time while on long-term loan to the Museum, the portraits invite special consideration as documents of marriage and family life within the city's free African American community.
The Montiers descended directly from the first mayor of Philadelphia, Humphrey Morrey, appointed in 1691. The Morreys manumitted their slaves during the early eighteenth century, and Humphrey Morrey's son later formed a common-law marriage with one of the family's freed servants, Cremona, who would receive almost two hundred acres of land in Cheltenham from her husband. The family's prominence throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries undoubtedly influenced the Montiers' decision to commemorate their marriage with high style portraits, a rare and expensive undertaking for the young couple.
By the time of his wedding in May 1841, Hiram Montier was a successful bootmaker on 7th Street, just a few blocks from Independence Hall. Dressed formally and surrounded by classical columns, lavish drapery, and leather-bound books, the figures record the Montiers' affluence as well as their literacy. Signed by Philadelphia painter Franklin R. Street, the paintings are distinguished by stylish clothing and jewelry as well as the striking naturalism of the sitters' faces.
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