Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Not a brushstroke creates the shadow of a slave"

In her beautifully written book, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, C.S. Manegold tells the story of, among others, Isaac Royall Jr., who came into possession of Ten Hills Farm (which lay along the Mystic River near Medford, Massachusetts) upon the death of his father in 1739.

In the course of her review of Isaac Jr., Ms. Manegold discusses a painting of Isaac and his family created by Robert Feke in 1741. I was so struck by the picture - and Ms. Manegold's description - that I thought I'd share it with you, particularly since the original is virtually inaccessible - "hiding in plain sight" in a room within Harvard's Law School, "a place so forbidding and obscure it seldom sees a visitor."

At the right is 22 year old Isaac, "wear[ing] an imperious expression," "undeniably the painting's hero." To his right (the viewer's left), "all in a row like bobbins - sit his women." Immediately to his right is his 19 year old wife Elizabeth, a Scottish heiress, "a solid figure, someone who might have thrived just as well carrying pails of milk and churning butter." Elizabeth holds their daughter.

Next to Elizabeth is her sister, Mary Palmer (nee McIntosh). "Sweet-faced and unfocused," smiling Mary seems both "sympathetic" and "fragile," "as though life might come and knock her down."

Finally at the far left is Isaac's sister Penelope, who "exudes detachment, as though she only deigns to sit at her brother's insistence."

Missing are the sources of the family's wealth. "Not a brushstroke creates the shadow of a slave."

If you want to get a book for Juneteenth, Ms. Manegold's work would make an excellent choice.

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