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The emphasis is on the individual

Paintings of African Americans from the 19th century displayed in Long Beach defy stereotypes of that era.

September 01, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

There's no better way to break down stereotypes than to see people as individuals. That's what "Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century" does from the start.

In the entrance to the exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art hangs a lovely portrait Edward Mitchell Bannister painted of Christiana Carteaux Bannister, a Boston hairdresser who owned her own business in the 1850s and 1860s and was active in the anti-slavery movement. She was also the painter's wife and benefactor. This allowed Bannister to dedicate himself to his art, attending classes, entering juried exhibitions and painting commissioned portraits. His picture of his wife is intimate and endearing, humbly attuned to the nuances that reveal her personality.

Today, depicting such unique qualities of character is not a big deal. But at the time the show's pictures were painted, many whites boldly proclaimed their inability to distinguish one black person from another.

Such racist sentiments are still with us. In this light, the images in "Portraits of a People" are nothing short of revolutionary, their portrayal of singular individuals radically democratic and profoundly American.

Just inside the first of two galleries hangs a row of seven similarly sized, similarly composed and similarly framed portraits of unique African Americans. Made between 1805 and 1897 by seven artists, the diverse portraits invite viewers to pay attention to differences in detail and personal quirks of character.

The first, "Portrait of Henry O. Tanner" by Thomas Eakins, shows an impeccably dressed man lost in thought. A student of Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Tanner had more success as an artist in Europe than the United States. Eakins' portrait shows him to be a refined, introspective man.

Next to Eakins' quietly contemplative picture, William P. Codman's "Portrait of John Moore, Jr.," is playful, buoyant and filled with levity. Moore was a Boston barber whose entrepreneurial skills made him a member of the city's black middle class in the 1820s and '30s. Decked out like a dandy, he enjoys his accomplishments with wholehearted satisfaction, ample flamboyance and just a touch of disbelief. The combination is charming.

The third painting, Charles Willson Peale's "Yarrow Mamout," stands out as the show's most riveting portrait. A Muslim and resident of the nation's new capital, Mamout (probably an Anglicized version of Mahmoud or Mohammed) was at least 100 -- and said to be 140 -- when Peale painted his portrait over two days in 1819. Mamout appears to be a real character, an eccentric dresser with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a conspiratorial grin on his face.

His life was filled with adventure. He was probably born in Guinea. As a teenager he was stolen from his home, shipped across the ocean and sold into slavery in Maryland in 1728. He outlived his master and his master's son, who inherited him. The son's wife finally freed Mamout in 1797. Well into his 80s, he went to work as a hauler. His first two investment ventures failed. Then he bought property and became a stockholder in a prestigious bank.

Peale's crisp, realistic portrait conveys no bitterness, resentment or world-weariness. Instead, it presents Mamout as an approachable guy whose wealth of experience feeds his deep curiosity about the present and his excitement about being alive.

Jeremiah Pearson Hardy's "Abraham Hanson" is not as complex a picture but it's equally touching. Hanson was a Bangor, Maine, barber known as a bubbly conversationalist whose optimism was infectious. The casual, perhaps unfinished painting, set before a mysterious landscape, conveys Hanson's agreeably gregarious nature.

The next three paintings likewise depict people you'd want to meet -- and would be honored to know.

"Man in a Feathered Helmet" by Rembrandt Peale (one of Charles Willson Peale's 17 children) depicts a young, almond-eyed man dressed in the regalia of a Hawaiian chieftain. The model who posed for the picture is believed to be Moses Williams, a one-time slave of the Peale household who became a renowned silhouette cutter. One of his deft, cut-paper profiles is displayed nearby, as is a portrait silhouette Raphaelle Peale (the eldest son) made of Williams. Across its bottom edge is boldly written: "Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles."

"The Flutist," by an unknown painter, presents a handsome, unidentified man dressed to the nines. His awkward grasp of the instrument and songbook suggests that he is not in the habit of holding such things -- that he is just doing his job, posing for a picture that fulfills someone else's fantasy.

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