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. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mamout’s life in Georgetown serves as a telling, and particularly poignant, reminder of the situation of blacks, free and enslaved, in the United States. The ironic persistence of slavery in a city so close to the new capital of the country was surely not lost on Mamout and the other black residents of the community.

According to the census for 1800, there were almost 1,500 slaves in Georgetown out of a total population of more than 5,000. By this time, Mamout was counted among the much smaller number of 277 free blacks.

Life for this class of residents was not devoid of opportunities, as Mamout’s case proves, and many free blacks found employment in various trades and in domestic service. Some even practiced professional skills, such as medicine. Still, the presence of a large number of slaves in Georgetown prompted the passage of repressive ordinances intended to keep the population under control.

The story of Yarrow Mamout has recently been brought together and published by the historian James H. Johnston in his book From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. Most remarkable of all is the restoration of Mamout’s genealogical descent down to the present day. He had at least one son, Aquilla, through whose marriage to a local black woman his line has descended to the present day. One member of the family, Simon Turner, served in the Civil War. A further mark of distinction was achieved by Robert Turner Ford, who received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1927.

An obituary published just after Mamout’s death in January 1823 provides a final insight into his personal life. The account states that he was buried in the garden behind his home, in the spot where he had prayed as a devout Muslim. Consciously or not, the last surviving published record of his life stresses the crucial preservation of his African origins in the face of nearly overwhelming odds. 

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.