In seventeenth-century Europe, it became an established trope to include enslaved people in portraits of white subjects. This pictorial convention dehumanized Black people by rendering them as a visual type—as symbols rather than as individuals. Although less common than on the other side of the Atlantic, the insidious artistic convention of the “Black page” made its way to the British American colonies by the turn of the eighteenth century.
As seen in this Maryland-based portrait, a typical composition shows a Black child gazing at a white figure, emphasizing the authority of the sitter in contrast to the enslaved figure’s servile role. Conveyed with individualized features, the Black boy in this portrait is likely based on a real person, an attendant to a wealthy white child of similar age. The presence of a drum suggests that play was among the Black attendant’s duties. Clothed in luxurious fabrics, he would also have been expected to represent the family’s prosperity and power through a dignified and polished self-presentation. Although we do not know the Black boy’s name, he was likely one of the 150 people enslaved by the Calvert family at their plantation, Mt. Airy.
This painting is currently on view in the exhibition “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North,” open through March 24, 2024.
→ Learn more about this painting and read a curatorial note about its title by downloading the free Bloomberg Connects app at https://www.bloombergconnects.org/
🎨 John Hesselius (1728–1778), Charles Calvert and Once-Known Enslaved Attendant, Rosaryville, Maryland, 1761, Oil on canvas, Baltimore Museum of Art, gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs in memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4.