New Acquisition | Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro)

Posted in museums by Editor on December 9, 2015

With cultural and religious ignorance and intolerance finding new, ever uglier modes of expression here in the United States, on what seems a daily basis, this remarkable portrait (a 2011 acquisition by the Philadelphia Museum of Art) usefully speaks to how diverse and complex American history has always been. CH

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From the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2011-87-1).

2011-87-1-pmaYarrow Mamout, an African American Muslim who won his freedom from slavery, was reputedly 140 years old in 1819, when Charles Willson Peale painted this portrait for display in his Philadelphia Museum. Although Peale learned this was a miscalculation, the story of eighty-three-year-old Yarrow (c. 1736–1823), a native of the West African country of Guinea who was literate in Arabic, was still remarkable. As Peale noted, Yarrow was “comfortable in his Situation having Bank stock and [he] lives in his own house.”

A rare representation of ethnic and religious diversity in early America, and an outstanding example of Peale’s late naturalistic style, the picture is distinguished by the direct and sympathetic encounter between the artist and his subject and the skilled rendering of the details of physiognomy and age. Yarrow’s knit cap suggests a kufi, a hat traditionally worn by African Muslim men to assert their religion or African identity, but Peale artfully employs its yellow band to highlight his steady gaze with its glint of humor and wisdom.

Seventy-seven years old when he created this portrait, Peale was seeking a record of the personal traits that he believed supported a long life. In his writings and museum displays Peale celebrated making wise choices to maintain good health and a positive attitude, and he perceived Yarrow’s perseverance through his difficult life as a model of resourcefulness, industriousness, sobriety, and an unwillingness to become dispirited.

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More information about Mamout is available from this piece by Colbert King for The Washington Post (13 February 2015). For Mamout’s biography, see James Johnston, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family (Fordham University Press, 2012). This past summer, the Historic Preservation Office dug shovel test pits in Georgetown in connection with the Yarrow Mamout Archaeology Project, led by Mia Carey (as reported by WAMU 88.5).


2 Responses

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  1. Sarah Monks said, on December 9, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Bravo, Craig!

    • Editor said, on December 10, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      Thanks, Sarah. It’s really an extraordinary image, a compelling representation of an extraordinary person. -C.

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