Archive for the ‘Moorhead, Scipio’ Category

“And breathing figures learnt from thee to live”

Another item of interest about SARAH MOORHEAD (see previous posts) is her connection to a slave of the family called Scipio who is thought to have been a talented working artist around 1773. Sarah was a teacher of drawing and painting so it is possible, even likely, that she recognized his talent and was his teacher. But the only piece of art ascribed to Scipio Moorhead that has survived is the portrait of Phillis Wheatley, on the frontispiece of her published book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). (See posts on Wheatley here, here, here, here. here, and here.) A poem, “To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works,” written by this enslaved African-American poet has been cited as evidence that the engraving was made from a painting by Moorhead. (A note by a white reader in an early copy of the book mentions Scipio by name.)

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight!

It is true that the Moorheads and the Wheatleys were neighbors and that the two slaves knew each other. However, the assumption that Scipio is the artist of the frontispiece has been challenged by Eric Slauter, author of the article “Looking for Scipio Moorhead” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. He presents evidence based on the Scipio’s age, his contact with other painters, the current styles in portraiture, and his appearance in ads for the auctioning of the estate of John Moorhead and that of his daughter Mary. The historian J.L. Bell, in his blog Boston 1775, is quite persuaded that Slauter is right. He suggests that an another black artist working at the time with several works attributed to him, Prince Demah, may have been the actual artist of the Wheatley portrait. See two posts by my colleague Louise North on Prince Demah here and here.

Eric Slauter’s article appears in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Angela Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 89. Read the complete poem HERE.

posted August 17th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art,Moorhead, Scipio,Poetry,Prince Demah,Wheatley, Phillis

   Copyright © 2017 In the Words of Women.