Visual Culture of the Atlantic World (the Met)

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[Thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Here are excerpts from an essay by Emily Casey—“Visual Culture of the Atlantic World”—from the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018). The essay focuses on portraiture and other artwork in the Met collection that help to make visible the circuits of the Atlantic World and to track “the movement of global goods and peoples across the ocean, and from one cultural context to another.”

[. . .] Beginning with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, the Atlantic World was shaped and financed by European colonization of the American continent and its turn to enslaved labor as a means of profiting from the resources of the land. The expansion of European control across the Atlantic Ocean and around the world coincided with new ideas about the construction of society and the nature of identity. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment notions of liberty as an innate human condition inspired revolutions in British American colonies, France, and the French colonial island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), as well as debates over the morality of slavery and the eventual abolition of the slave trade.

Within the Met collection, portraiture is an important medium by which the circuits of the Atlantic World are made visible. Portraits, conceived to present the status and identity of the individuals represented, track the movement of global goods and peoples across the ocean, and from one cultural context to another. In an increasingly mobile world, the inclusion of references to an Atlantic culture highlighted the sitter’s own cosmopolitanism. For example, in a colonial American portrait of the dry goods merchant Elijah Boardman, the imported stuff of the businessman’s trade—fine European textiles shipped across the Atlantic—are juxtaposed with his extensive library, including publications about George Anson and James Cook’s circumnavigations of the globe (1979.395).

For Europeans, access to newly discovered parts of the world produced a culture that marked the unfamiliar and foreign as signifiers of wealth and status.

Materials ranging from Asian textiles to Caribbean pearls and coral, as well as non-European animals and people, were included in portraits as symbols of the refinement of the sitter. In a portrait by the French artist Nicolas de Largillierre, for example, the sitter’s status is represented not only by her grand architectural surroundings, finely made silk dress, and genteel comportment, but also by the presence of a brilliant green parrot and a turbaned black boy, whose enslaved condition is signaled by the presence of a metal collar around his neck (03.37.2). Both the parrot and the black child would have been seen by period viewers as representative of far-off locales—in this case, the jungles of South America and the coasts of West Africa—whose inclusion within a European work of art signified a form of mastery.

Paintings depicting enslaved men, women, and children of African descent as marginal figures were produced throughout the Atlantic World. They are demonstrative of the degree to which the economy of slavery and the aspirations of elite culture existed side by side. The intellectual and political ideals of the European Enlightenment that informed the period were fraught by their dependence on what was understood at the time as a morally ambiguous but financially necessary institution. [. . .]

People of African descent are visible within the art history of the Atlantic World not only as subjects, but also as cultural producers. [. . .] As makers, observers, and actors, people of color also shaped the modern global world.

In geography as well as industry, the trade and labor of enslaved people bound the Atlantic World together. Within this network, the plantation cultures of the Caribbean, southern North American colonies, and South America were of central importance for those invested in the production of luxury commodities like sugar and tobacco that answered the appetites of European and colonial American consumers.

Furniture was also a part of this economy. Made fashionable by the English furniture maker Thomas Chippendale, mahogany became the wood of choice for furnishing the eighteenth-century homes of the elite, from London to Newport, Rhode Island (67.114.1). While the design of these cabinets, chairs, and tables was informed by European Rococo and Asian styles, the wood itself was sourced from South American forests and harvested by enslaved labor.

Careers were made in the ongoing contest of Atlantic empires. A seventeenth-century portrait by Anthony van Dyck, a Flemish artist to the English court, represents Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick (49.7.26), whose career involved trading interests in the Caribbean and Virginia, colonial charters in New England, and maritime engagements with the Spanish, who were Britain’s primary imperial rival in the Americas. Another such case from the eighteenth century is the U.S. statesman Alexander Hamilton, whose full-scale portrait celebrates his role as a New York leader in finance (2013.454). Born and raised on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and Saint Croix, Hamilton came of age within a transnational milieu of imperial conflict and economic competition. The young Hamilton’s acumen in finance and trade prompted Saint Croix’s wealthy to finance his emigration to British North America to continue his education. In the period of the American Revolution, Hamilton rose to prominence as a lawyer, soldier, and statesmen—a trusted advisor to George Washington and the first secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton’s connection to the Caribbean informed the priority he placed on Atlantic trade as a path to national power, as well as his friendly attitude to British and European interests. [. . .]

Emily Casey is assistant professor of art history at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland and a former Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow in the American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. See http://www.smcm.edu/directory/faculty-profile/emily-casey

For full article, see https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vcaw/hd_vcaw.htm

[Image above: a portrait by French artist Nicolas de Largillierre.]

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