Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Attention for Rare, 19th-Century Portraits of Free African American Couple

Though not newly discovered, rare ca. 1840s portraits of wealthy, free African Americans Stephen Smith and Harriet Lee Smith are rightfully in the spotlight again.

Part of the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, the Smith portraits are featured in a new self-published book that examines the man who painted them, James Stidun/Stidum. The painter was identified by the Smiths' grandniece as a "prominent Negro artist," which make the portraits even more extraordinary relics of Philadelphia's vibrant free black community.

You can see Stephen's portrait online (scroll down to the second blurb), but Harriet's portrait is in poor shape and has not been exhibited for at least 20 years. Perhaps this media attention will encourage a donation or two for conservation?

(You can view two other rare portraits from the city's free black community at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Last year, the museum mounted, on long-term loan, the 1841 portraits of Hiram Charles Montier and Elizabeth Brown Montier. You can read about the Montiers here, including Hiram's family ties to the city's first mayor, and see their portraits here.)

I learned more about Stephen Smith and his influence on Philadelphia during my summer project updating an inventory of African American historic sites in the city.

Among his numerous real estate holdings and philanthropic activities, Smith built Beneficial Hall (near 6th and Lombard Streets) as a meeting place for black organizations, and in 1867 donated $250,000 to establish the Stephen Smith Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons (near Belmont and W. Girard Avenues). His partner William Whipper admitted after the Civil War that the two had used their lumber business to transport slaves to freedom in Canada. You can read more about Smith at this ExplorePaHistory.com feature, higlighting the state historical marker for Smith's Home for the Aged.

No comments:

Post a Comment