Prince: “[a] force of natural Genius”

Guest blogger, art historian, and an editor of In the Words of Women, Louise North writes about the black artist named Prince in this post and the one following.

It is always a delight when new details or insights are discovered about the women we cared about deeply and presented in our book In the Words of Women, but especially if our past researches had come to a dead end.

We wrote of loyalist Christian Arbuthnot Barnes and her outrage and fear as dissensions increased between her family and her neighbors in the late 1760s. Thanks to letters she wrote to her best friend Elizabeth Murray Campbell Smith, a successful Boston business woman (who was visiting England at the time), we learn how her husband Henry had been labeled an enemy to his country [Dec. 1769] and, six months later, how his effigy had been placed on a horse, which was let “loose about the Town, with an infamous Paper Pin’d to the Breast, which was sum’d up with wishing of us all in Hell.” Henry had been a merchant and dry goods importer in Marlborough, Massachusetts since 1753, had served as a magistrate, and was one of the largest taxpayers in the town. He also owned several slaves, among them Juliet and Daphney.

Amidst all the turmoil, there was a welcome distraction: Mrs. Barnes discovered that Daphney’s son Prince showed great artistic talent and, as she wrote Mrs. Smith, he was painting her picture. He also “has taken a Coppy of my Brothers extremely well” [20 Nov. 1769]—this probably refers to a brother in law. By 13 March 1770, Prince was

fix’d in one corner of the room improving himself in the Art of Painting . . . . were I only to descant on the Qualifications of my Limner it would be a Subject for several Sheets. He is a most surprising instance of the force of natural Genius for without the least instruction or improvment he has taken several Faces which are thought to be very well done, he has taken a Coppy of my Picture which I think has more of my resemblance than Coplings [John S. Copley]. He is now taking his own face which I will certainly send you as it must be valued as a curiosity by any Friend you shall please to bestow it upon. We are at great loss for proper materials, at Present he has workd only with Crayons [pastels] and them very bad ones and we are so ignorant as not to know what they are to be laid on. He has hetherto used Blue Paper but I think something better may be found out. If you should meet in your Travils with any one who is a Proficient in the art I wish you would make some inquerys into these perticulas for people in general think Mr. Copling will not be willing to give him any instruction and you know there is nobody else in Boston that does any thing at the Business . . . intend to Exhibit him to the Publick and don’t doubt he will do Honour to the profession.

You Laugh now and think this is one of Mr. Barnes Scheems, but you are quite mistaken it is intirely my own, and as it is the only one I ever ingag’d in I shall be greatly disapointed if it does not succeed. . . . as he was Born in our family he is of Tory Principles, but of that I am not quite so certain as he had not yet declar’d himself.

Mrs. Barnes sent the pastel copy of herself to Mrs. Smith. More about Prince in the next post.

The quoted passage can be found on page 215 of In the Words of Women. All other quotations from Mrs Barnes are from the Papers of Mrs. Christian Barnes, Library of Congress, DM16.157. The portrait of Christian Barnes is by Prince and can be found on the Hingham Heritage Museum website HERE.


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