Thursday, October 20, 2016

Earliest known portraits of a practicing American Muslim

1822 James Alexander Simpson (American artist & teacher) Yarrow Mount. Peabody Room, Georgetown Public Library

Georgetown artist James Alexander Simpson, a sometime painter & instructor at Georgetown College, painted this portrait of Yarrow Mamout in 1822. The Simpson portrait appears to have been painted from life & is not a copy of the much better known 1819 portrait (done when Mamout was about 83 years old) by the celebrated American painter, Charles Willson Peale. The Simpson painting was probably done in 1822 (the date on the label next to the painting), about two years before Yarrow's death.

Yarrow Mamout was born in Africa around 1736 and was a teenager when enslaved & brought to America, apparently no later than 1752. Yarrow (Mamout was his first name) was born & educated in Guinea, West Africa. Recent research shows that Yarrow probably was of Fulani heritage (in which the name Yaro still is used) & was literate in Arabic.

At about age 14 he was captured by slave traders & shipped to the United States, where Samuel Beall of Maryland purchased him. Beall bequeathed Yarrow to his son, Brooke Beall, who had Yarrow make bricks for a house he was building in Georgetown. After Brooke Beall's death his widow freed Yarrow in 1796. Yarrow saved the money he earned as a laborer & after 4 years was able to purchase a house & other property in Georgetown.

According to James H. Johnston’s 2006 Washington Post article, Yarrow himself was a survivor, having amassed a hundred-dollar nest egg for his retirement. Twice, merchants who held the money for him lost it when their businesses failed. Yarrow scraped & saved a third time, putting aside two hundred dollars, which he used to buy shares in Georgetown’s Columbia Bank, finally allowing him to support himself in retirement with the interest from his investment.

Yarrow, who followed the Muslim faith at a time when few Americans did, was immortalized by these two white artists near the end of his life. Yarrow reportedly was buried in his yard; research is ongoing into whether his remains are still there & whether any part of the house at 3324, 3330-3332, Dent Place NW in Georgetown could have been Yarrow's.

1819 Charles Willson Peale (American painter, 1741-1827). Yarrow Mamout is believed to be the earliest known portrait of a practicing American Muslim.

The following account is from Philadelphia Inquirer - Stephan Salisbury - ‎October, 23, 2011‎

"In 1819, Charles Willson Peale headed down to Washington DC to paint portraits of President James Monroe, Henry Clay, and other dignitaries for exhibition in the famed Peale museum located in Independence Hall.

"But there was another sitter the painter wanted to snare on his trip. "I heard of a Negro who is living in Georgetown said to be 140 years of age," Peale wrote in his diary. "He is comfortable in his Situation having Bank stock and lives in his own house." 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."

"The man was Yarrow Mamout, a free African, a Muslim who indeed held bank stock, purchased with great effort to secure a comfortable old age - after a life of abduction and bondage. (He was, however, most likely only in his 80s.) Mamout, known throughout Georgetown as affable and chatty, sat for Peale for at least two days, talking about his life.

"The finished portrait - the earliest known rendering of an American Muslim and an extremely rare early portrayal of a free African - has been purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. Mamout told at least some of his  story to Peale (who was 78 years old at the time), fascinating the painter and inspiring him to fill his diary with Yarrow Mamout anecdotes..."Yarrow owns a house & lotts and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown & particularly by the Boys who are often teazing him which he takes in good humour," Peale confided in his diary. "The acquaintance of him often banter him about eating Bacon and drinking Whiskey - but Yarrow says it is no good to eat Hog - & drink whiskey is very bad."

"After completing the portrait, Peale brought it back to Philadelphia and hung it in his museum...Exhibited with Peale renderings of the nation's eminent statesmen, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, Yarrow Mamout was a magnet for visitors.

"In 1854, long after Peale's death, his museum's holdings were liquidated, and Yarrow Mamout was purchased by a prominent Philadelphia Quaker and businessman, Charles S. Ogden. Ogden also purchased the Peale portrait of Washington painted at Mount Vernon in 1772, believed to be the first portrait of the future general and president. Ogden apparently thought the two paintings were closely related because when he donated both to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1892..."

Additional Sources:
Valerie Babb, Carroll Gibbs, & Kathleen Lesko, Black Georgetown Remembered (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1991), 11-12.

Thomas J. Carrier, Historic Georgetown: A Walking Tour, Images of America Series (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 1999).

Kenneth C. Haley, “A Nineteenth Century Portraitist & More: James Alexander Simpson,” Maryland Historical Magazine 72-3 (fall 1977): 410-411.

Yarrow Mamout, Vertical Files, Peabody Room, Georgetown Public Library

James H. Johnston, "The Man in the Knit Cap," Washington Post Magazine, Feb. 5, 2006.

Humanities Magazine, November/December 2008 Volume 29, Number 6