A Memorable Portrait of an Ex-Slave

Image of the Week: Painter Charles Willson Peale’s fateful meeting with African-born Yarrow Mamout produced one of the nation’s most lasting images.

Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Yarrow Mamout, 1819. Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches.
Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Yarrow Mamout, 1819. Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Bundled in a heavy overcoat, high-collared jacket and knit cap, an elderly black man regards the viewer with a frankness of expression tinged with bemusement. The spellbinding candor of self-presentation seen here could only have been recorded by an artist possessed of great sympathy for his subject. The fortuitous meeting of the ex-slave Yarrow Mamout and the painter-naturalist Charles Willson Peale produced one of the most fascinating and memorable portraits of the early American republic.

Unlike the vast majority of slaves brought to the Americas from Africa, Mamout lived a life that is relatively well documented. He seems to have been born in Guinea or Senegal on the west coast of Africa, in a region inhabited by the Fulani people. Despite the profoundly disorienting effects of enslavement, Mamout kept his native name, and consequently something of his personal identity, throughout his long life in forced exile from his homeland.

The original version of his name may have been “Mamadou Yero,” later inverted because of carelessness or unconcern on the part of his captors. A lifelong Muslim, he was named in honor of the Prophet Muhammad, but the significance of both names probably also reflects local practice regarding the circumstances of his birth. “Mamadou” was sometimes given to Fulani boys born on Monday, and “Yero” to a woman’s fourth-born child. Once in America, he used “Yarrow” as an improvised surname.

Enslaved in his early teens along with his sister, Mamout was brought to Annapolis, Md., in 1752. He was sold to Samuel Beall, a local entrepreneur, whom he served as a skilled worker for about 25 years. Mamout was inherited by Samuel’s son Brooke and was taken from Annapolis to the recently established settlement of Georgetown. In 1796, after more than 40 years in bondage, he finally gained his freedom through what seems to have been a negotiated settlement with his master.

From that point on, his fortunes improved considerably, and the former slave soon became a conspicuous presence in Georgetown. Four years after he gained his freedom, Mamout not only had purchased a house but also held shares of stock in a local bank founded by a relative of his former owner.

In late 1818, at the age of 77, Peale journeyed to Washington, D.C., seeking Congress’ official recognition of the unique museum of paintings and natural history that he had established in Philadelphia. Although the prominent artist’s efforts proved fruitless, while he was in the area, his curiosity was aroused by the news of a local black man who had supposedly attained the astonishingly great age of 140. The physiological basis of longevity had long fascinated the artist, and he was keen to understand its scientific basis. Mamout is now known to have been in his early 80s at the time, not much older, in fact, than Peale himself.

That Mamout and Peale should have met seems to have been curiously fated. Their lives and fortunes had been determined by many of the same forces, only to follow dramatically different paths. While growing up in Annapolis, Peale could actually have witnessed the slightly older Mamout being taken off the slave ship Elijah, and may also have read about the availability of its cargo in the local paper.

Christopher Lowndes, the owner of the ship that transported Mamout into bondage, was one of several local merchants who later sponsored Peale’s formal training in London. A further irony lies in Peale’s own subsequent possession of slaves. The last of these, the artist Moses Williams, was freed only in 1802.

Peale’s interest in Mamout was not the first case of his involvement with a black subject as a matter of scientific concern. Nearly 30 years earlier, he had painted James “the White Negro,” a local young black man whose body had begun to progressively manifest the splotched-skin condition known as vitiligo. Convinced that only lack of education and skin pigmentation separated the races, Peale speculated on the eventual, full inclusion of black Africans in American society. In addition to Mamout’s diet and lifestyle, Peale may have also regarded race as a contributing factor in Mamout’s advanced age.