Black portraits get new names, and a new show

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Black portraits get new names, and a new show
Gyn Philpot [1884 – 1937), Balthazar, 1929, oil on canvas, Private collection© Private Collection/Bridgeman Images.

by Precious Adesina

LONDON.- In the early 20th century, Glyn Philpot was one of Britain’s most respected portrait painters. The artist was known for depicting high-society sitters in a style mimicking the old masters, so his works sat comfortably on the walls of his clients’ country homes alongside generations of their family members.

“All the papers are raving about P. now. Have you seen?” Philpot’s friend Gladys Miles wrote to art historian Randall Davies in 1910. “Everyone is rushing to be painted like sheep.”

By the 1930s, though, not only had Philpot’s painting style become more modernist, incorporating abstracted backgrounds and a lighter color palette, he was also painting sensitive portraits of Black people, some of which, unusually for the time, were shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Philpot’s most frequent Black subject was Henry Thomas, a Jamaican man who met the painter in 1929 and became his servant and muse until Philpot died in 1937. In “Balthazar,” painted the year they met, Philpot imagined Thomas as one of the Bible’s wise men. In tasteful studies of Thomas himself, Philpot carefully depicted the textures, shades and contours of Thomas’ hair and skin.

Several Thomas portraits, alongside other paintings of Black sitters, are part of “Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit,” on view until October at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, England. The show is the first major retrospective of Philpot’s paintings in almost 40 years and arrives at a time when his work has new resonance.

In the gallery, the pieces are generally displayed chronologically, from the printed books Philpot made as a student at the turn of the century to his final works from 1937. Among the paintings of aristocrats and socialites that made his career, his dignified and varied portraits of Black sitters stood out.

But when it came to putting the exhibition together, Simon Martin, its curator and director of the museum, felt some of the paintings’ original names were outdated, he said.

In Philpot’s time, “a lot of those works were just called ‘Head of a Negro,’” Martin said. “On the spectrum of titles, it’s probably on the more acceptable side” for the early 20th century, he added. “But in 2022, if we are able to, and can put effort into, finding out who those people are and where they came from, I think we should,” Martin said.

To do this, he worked with a team of advisers, including Alayo Akinkugbe, who founded the Instagram account ABlackHistoryOfArt; British opera singer and broadcaster Peter Brathwaite; and Michael Hatt, who teaches art history at the University of Warwick. Where possible, they retitled Philpot’s paintings to include the model’s name and place of birth, and avoid mention of the sitter’s race.

It’s not the first time portraits’ names have been reworked to provide more information about their Black subjects. For a 2019 exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, works by Manet, Picasso and Cézanne were retitled to include the names of the Black models.

The original title of a 1778 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin only referred to the white British aristocrat Lady Elizabeth. Until the 1990s, it was assumed that Dido, who was Black, was a slave or companion, until research revealed the pair were related and had comparable upbringings in British aristocracy (the painting inspired the 2014 film “Belle”).

Organizations like the National Trust, a British heritage conservation charity, have also started reexamining how the artworks in their large collections frame Black people. “It is important we don’t erase the original language, as this sheds light on historical viewpoints, but we have sensitively updated the information around some of the artworks,” a spokesperson for the National Trust said via email. Eighteenth-century portrait “A Young Coachman” at Erddig, a National Trust property in north Wales, for example, now includes information on who the Black man in the painting might be.

The National Trust’s ongoing efforts to recognize Britain’s colonial past have been met with some pushback, and deciding whether to retitle artworks can be complex. “Some believe that changing the name could alter the intention of the artist,” said Esi Edugyan, whose recent collection of essays, “Out Of The Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race,” explores the relationship between Western art and Black people. “If the artist himself has chosen the name, then the intentionality of that gesture must be taken into account,” she added.

Martin and his advisory team saw relabeling Philpot’s works as appropriate, given that it’s most likely auction houses at the time gave his paintings their generic titles, rather than the artist. “A name like ‘Melancholy Negro’ is not very telling,” Akinkugbe said. “Even if Philpot had named it that, I don’t think he would take issue with the social-political context that we’re in now meaning that we rename it.”

Martin said that Philpot’s experiences as a gay man, at a time when sexual activity between men was a criminal offense in Britain, would have given the artist a sense of affinity with his Black sitters. “Even though he does everything he can to fit in and to be part of society, there’s always the sense that somehow he doesn’t,” Martin said.

Even so, there was a deeply uneven power dynamic between Philpot’s social standing and a number of his Black subjects, especially in the case of Thomas, his servant. But the care with which he depicted Black people still contrasted with some of his peers’ approaches. Martin compared his work with French artist Paul Colin, known for his art deco poster illustrations around the same time.

“You look at some of those depictions of Josephine Baker, for example, and they’re verging on the caricature at times,” Martin said. Baker, who became one of Europe’s most popular performers in the 1920s, was often depicted by Colin as topless, with stereotypically large red lips. “This is not something you ever get in Philpot’s work,” Martin added.

In recent years, exhibitions, podcasts and researchers have explored how Black people are portrayed in European art. Although this has been especially notable since the “moment of reckoning” of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Edugyan said, “among artists, whose chief subject is representation — literally, how something is depicted and seen — discussions about Black visibility have perhaps always turned an eye toward the larger picture, to the shifting perceptions of Blackness across the ages.”

When Philpot began painting more Black and working-class subjects in a modernist style, many in the art world were confused and even affronted. “Glyn Philpot ‘goes Picasso,’” The Scotsman newspaper wrote in 1932 after one of his new paintings was unveiled at the Royal Academy.

But viewed today, Philpot’s portraits speak to current discussions around representation in art and show a depth of feeling that endures a century later.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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