An extraordinarily rare image of two children - one white, one African American was purchased by London art dealers Philip Mould & Company
this evening (Friday 20 January 2023) at Christies in New York for just under one million dollars.
Painted by an unknown artist in America in around 1820, and estimated at $50-$100k, it attracted heated competition from collectors and museums on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually making ten times its top estimate with premium included.
Mould, who is also known as the art expert on BBC1's Fake or Fortune, believes it to be unprecedented for this date in American portrait painting. "We are very excited to have bought it. I know of no painting of this date or earlier quite like it. The unselfconscious depiction of two racially distinct girls, who were clearly deeply attached, is extraordinarily rare for this period, as well as very affecting. The constraints and social protocol in painted portraiture of the period make such palpable depiction of interracial attachment almost without precedent."
In their description of the painting Christies acknowledged its rarity, stating: "This double portrait presents its subjects as equals at a time of pervasive racial inequality. If anything, the pose and props cast the African American girl as the superior figure."
The only painting that Mould knows which could be described as comparable is the portrait of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray painted in c.1770 in England (on display as part of the collection at Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland) a work which was the focus of an episode of Fake or Fortune in 2018. Dido was the daughter of a black slave and white father. Mould identified the artist, after considerable research, as the Scottish portraitist, David Martin. "This however goes considerably further. Although, as yet, we don't know the artist, nor the identity of the subjects, the relationship of equality is emphatically expressed says Mould The normal objectifications in the depiction of racial distinction have been set aside.
A most unusual and revealing aspect of the painting is the book of the story of Cinderella held by the younger child. As the Christie's cataloguer pointed out: The inclusion of a reference to a well-known story with stepsister characters raises the possibility that in the absence of blood ties, the artist was nonetheless deliberately conveying sisterhood. Mould muses Or perhaps the reference to Cinderella is more obvious. As a female heroine who overcame the prejudices of her oppressors, Cinderella may well turn out to have more in common with the eldest child than initially thought.
Future plans for the painting involve a period of research, after which Mould will be looking to place the work in a museum where its qualities and significance can be appreciated within a fuller context, and it can be enjoyed by the public