A report from Caribbean News Now.
The people of Denmark and the US Virgin Islands – art historians, museum directors, archivists, researchers, former colonial families, genealogists, and the general public – are being asked to help uncover the identity of arguably the most mysterious woman in European colonial art.
Referring to En Mulatinde, the 1855 painting by C. Felsing, Matthias Danbolt, art historian and curator at the Danish Royal Library, in a May 30, 2017, article in Politiken, one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, said, “I have not encountered anything like it before, and I am very interested to know more.”
In the same article, Henrik Holm, inspector of the Danish National Museum of Art, described the painting as “most unusual.” And former USVI senator Wayne James, owner of the painting, said, “I look forward to being able to put a name to one of the most mysterious faces in colonial art.”
In the New World, during the era of slavery, the mere mention of the word “mulatto”, especially when attributed to a female, would conjure intrigue: She was presumed beautiful and sensuous and rumored “seductress” and “femme fatale”; she was perceived as at once savage and noble; and at times she was privileged, while at other times, vilified. Rarely, however, was the mulatto regarded as victim or the embodiment of the monstrous institution that spawned her. Not even in death, in a bifurcated world with white cemeteries and black cemeteries, did the mulatto find official acceptance. That troublesome ambiguity, apparently, extended even into the realm of portraiture, where colors and hues are otherwise prized.
In 1855, artist C. Felsing exhibited a painting titled En Mulatinde (A Female Mulatto) at Charlottenborg-Udstillingerne (Charlottenborg-Exhibits), the Danish equivalent of France’s Salon, the annual, official, by-invitation or jury-vetted exhibition for Danish fine artists. But it is unlikely that Felsing realized that the compellingly austere, masterfully executed portrait would 150 years later become arguably one of the ten most significant paintings of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the colonial era.
A classic Danish Golden-Age painting, En Mulatinde is as mysterious as it is striking: It is one of only two known Danish paintings signed “C. Felsing” (The other painting, once a part of Denmark’s Bornholm Museum and now a part of the nation’s Museum of Cultural History, features two Danish mariners and is no longer regarded by Bornholm Museum experts to be by the Felsing of En Mulatinde); the identity of the subject of the painting, a mulatto lady of approximately 20 years of age, remains a highly guarded or forgotten-by-history secret; and from the painting’s stark, dark, monochromatic background emerges, almost three dimension-like, a resplendent – even if homely – subject. In many ways, the painting epitomizes the adage, “less is more”. The artist seems intent upon using symbolism to convey his/her sentiments: dark juxtaposed to light; things African comingled with things European; cool cotton next to warm wool.
The quality of the painting is undeniable; it is one of the most skillfully executed Danish portraits of the 19th century – a veritable virtuosic display of art as life. Presented in three-quarter profile, the young subject – who appears at once aloof and intriguing, timid yet determined, comfortable but melancholic – without uttering a word, speaks volumes on the perennially problematic topics of race, race-relations, and resistance in Denmark and her far-flung colonies in the West Indies.
Exactly who Felsing was and why he/she is known to have exhibited only one work of art at prestigious Charlottenborg is unknown. The Danes, long revered for their meticulous recordkeeping, know very little about Felsing. They do know, however, of the 1855 listing of En Mulatinde on page 157 in the official catalogue of Charlottenborg-Udstillingerne for the years 1807 to 1882; of the sale of the painting at Cirkelhuset in Hørsholm to an art collector; and of the subsequent sale in 2004 (Auction No. 97; Lot No. 402) of the painting at the Vejle division of Denmark’s premier auction house, Bruun-Rasmussen.
Only classically trained, established artists would have been allowed to exhibit at Charlottenborg in the middle of the 19th century. Yet, where and to whom Felsing was born; with whom he/she studied art; where his/her artist’s studio was located; etc., remain undiscovered. In addition, the artist seems to have been purposefully cryptic when registering the painting in the 1855 exhibition: Unlike the catalogue listings of other artists, which include full first, middle, and last names in addition to places of birth, Felsing provides an initial instead of a first name, no middle name, a full last name, but no place of birth. And the painting’s title is, at best, vague.
When the painting was offered for sale in 2004, its official title was augmented from En Mulatinde to En Mulat fra Dansk Vestindiske (A Mulatto from the Danish West Indies), perhaps because of the tendency for things Danish West Indian to fetch higher prices in Danish auction houses. Since 2009, the painting, along with other 19th-century portraits of black subjects by Danish artists, has been on display at the Fort Frederik Museum on St Croix as part of an ongoing exhibition titled, Sleeping with a Bachelor: The Antique Bedroom Furniture of Crucian Collector Wayne James.
In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States of America, an effort is underway – in Denmark and in the US Virgin Islands – to unveil the identity of the young mulatto and that of the eminently talented artist who painted her. With some foundational facts, the detective work can begin in earnest.
To the trained eye, several elements of the painting are salient. Throughout the history of European oil portraiture, very rarely were black subjects depicted. And on the few occasions when they were, they were rendered as pseudo-scientific, socio-anthropological “type-studies” or as incidental to or accessories of the principal subjects – usually white people – of the paintings. Even in the Orientalism genre, where “exotic” types and settings were specifically sought out by European artists, Old World Africans, typically from North Africa, were oftentimes portrayed – but usually engaging in some activity such as playing a musical instrument or as an element of some picturesque setting, whether harem, marketplace, boudoir, or street scene, for example. But rarely was the black subject depicted in his or her own right as the central figure of European painting. Danish artist Otto Bache’s African Gentleman in White Turban, Paris, 1866, also on display in the exhibition at Fort Frederik, and C. Felsing’s En Mulatinde are two such rare examples.
Otto Bache’s African Gentleman in White Turban, Paris, 1866, oil on canvas. Private Collection of Wayne James
The commissioning of an oil portrait in the 19th century required a major financial investment. As such, most black people in the New World – even the free ones – could not afford to commission oil portraits. The pre-20th-century paintings by European artists depicting black people, then, were mostly commissioned by white slave owners and employers. And rarely were the black people the intended focus of those paintings, even if such was the end result. Most of the 18th- and 19th-century Danish paintings depicting black people are of nannies in active duty, attending to their charges, or of the female domestic serving her mistress. On exceedingly rare occasions, there would be the portrait of the black person who rose to prominence or notoriety, or of the enchanting, voluptuous mistress bedecked in her finery.
The young lady in En Mulatinde is dressed as would the typical Danish West Indies female domestic servant of her era, whether in the islands or in Denmark: hair wrapped in plaid cotton madras fabric from India, a shawl draped over the shoulders. Niels Peter Holbech’s Neky with Marie Birch Dahlerup (1838) and Wilhem Marstrand’s 1857 portrait of the nanny Justina with the artist’s two nieces in Frederiksberg Gardens in Denmark are dressed thus. There is no known record of a painter by the name of Felsing ever entering the Danish West Indies. And the subject dressed in a high-neck, knotted-collar blouse with a woolen shawl suggests her presence in a cool environment, presumably Denmark.
Where Felsing’s painting shockingly departs from its esteemed counterparts is that Felsing’s subject is the only figure in the painting. Even the background is purposefully understated so as to impart a particular prominence upon the young lady. Clearly, this young woman is of major importance to whoever commissioned the painting. Whatever her domestic duty may have been – nanny, cook, chambermaid, washerwoman, wet nurse, undercover mistress – she was painted in her own right, for all eternity to see.
Her deliberate anonymity, then, as evidenced by the generic title of the painting, is all the more perplexing: Why would the name of a young domestic who was so revered – perhaps even loved – so as to be honored with a portrait in her own right not be identified by name when her portrait was being titled for a national exhibition? Was C. Felsing a debuting female artist who painted surreptitiously in the male-dominated world of 19th-century portraiture, using, in the case of En Mulatinde, only the initial of her first name to render herself gender-ambiguous in the face of an androcentric Charlottenborg jury? Was Felsing’s mulatto an unacknowledgeable family member? Was she the painter’s paramour or his mixed-race muse? Was the subject of the painting taken in her early teenage years away from her black mother and transported to Denmark to reside, incognito, with her white father and his Danish family? Was she a mistress-in-waiting? The questions are limitless.
It is highly unlikely that the young lady was born in continental Denmark. No Europe-born mulatto living in Denmark would have donned a headwrap of the style typical in the Danish West Indies. And the fact that the young woman knew how to tie the traditional headwrap suggests that she lived in the islands until at least her early teenage years since only women in their teens and older would have worn, and therefore known how to tie, such a headwrap. If Felsing exhibited the painting the year it was painted, it is safe to assume that the young lady, born around 1833-1835, would have left the islands sometime between 1845-1855. Uncovering the identity of the young mulatto could reasonably begin with perusing the shipping records to find a teenaged girl departing the islands, en route to Denmark, with a Danish person or family.
More questions arise: Who are her parents? On which Danish West Indies island was she born? What is her name? Did she wear her headwrap as a tacit declaration of her African heritage, or was she forced to wear it so as to leave no doubt that she was not a member of her master’s family? Did she marry in Denmark? Did she return to the islands? Did she bear children? When did she die? Where is she buried? Who are her descendants? And who are her present-day black relatives in the US Virgin Islands and white relatives in Denmark?
The Danish family that sold the painting in Hørsholm – likely the family to which this young lady is connected by blood and/or service – is probably well aware of at least some of the answers to these probing questions. And since the painting has been outside that Danish family for at least 13 years, it is likely that in a generation the answers to these questions, if not answered at this juncture, will forever be lost to history.
The 2017 Centennial Celebration has rekindled unprecedented interest in the shared heritage between Denmark and its former West Indies islands, the present-day US Virgin Islands: Archival material is being exchanged; friendships are being forged; hard questions are being asked and answered; and colonial sentiments are being relaxed. If there has ever been a time for age-old secrets to be revealed, it is now. Felsing’s mulatto is a historical fact; her oil-on-canvas countenance insists upon her acknowledgment. The only missing component is her specific identity so that, finally, almost 200 years after her birth, she can claim her family and they can claim her.