Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Artists before the Twentieth Century

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Portrait of Phillis Wheatley (1773)

Anonymous, Phillis Wheatley (1773). Engraving after Scipio Moorhead. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The earliest significant black fine artist was an African slave. Scipio Moorhead (fl. 1773), a poet and painter, was owned by Reverend John Moorhead from Boston. Scipio was taught to draft and paint by Moorhead's wife, Sarah, an artist and teacher. Well-known in Boston as an artist, Scipio was commissioned by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poems, to execute the portrait that appears here. Taken from the frontispiece of her book, the image is actually an etching of the original by Moorhead. His ink drawing of Wheatley sitting at a writing table with a contemplative upward gaze typical of portraits of the era, a quill pen poised over a sheet of paper, an open book and inkwell on the desk, brought praise from Wheatley, who included in her collection a poem in honor of the artist, "To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works."

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