This season, the Brooklyn Museum acquired an important, paradigm-shifting oil painting by Italian painter Agostino Brunias. The piece, entitled “Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape,” depicts women of mixed race on the Caribbean island of Dominica, which changed hands multiple times between the powers of Britain and France during the colonial period.
“The painting depicts two richly dressed mixed-race women, one of whom was possibly the wife of the artist’s patron. They are shown accompanied by their mother and their children, along with eight African servants, as they walk on the grounds of a sugar plantation, one of the agricultural estates that were Dominica’s chief source of wealth. Brunias documented colonial women of color as privileged and prosperous. The two wealthy sisters are distinguished from their mother and servants by their fitted European dresses.
The painting is a Caribbean version of contemporaneous English works made popular by artists such as William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, whose art often depicts the landed gentry engaged in leisurely pursuits. Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape and other Caribbean paintings by Brunias celebrate the diversity of European, Caribbean, and African influences in the region.
Although Brunias was originally commissioned to promote upper-class plantation life, his works soon assumed a more subversive, political role throughout the Caribbean as endorsements of a free, anti-slavery society, exposing the artificialities of racial hierarchies in the West Indies. Among his supporters was Haiti’s liberator, François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, who wore on his waistcoat eighteen buttons decorated with reproductions of Brunias’s paintings.”
“Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape” is on view in the European Art Collection at the Brooklyn Museum.
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