Exhibitions: European Paintings

Agostino Brunias: Free Women of Color

Brunias was a London-based Italian painter who left England at the height of his career to chronicle Dominica, then one of Britain’s newest colonies in the Lesser Antilles. This painting depicts two richly dressed mixed-race women, one of whom was possibly the wife of the artist’s patron. They are shown accompanied by their mother and their children, along with eight African servants, as they walk on the grounds of a sugar plantation, one of the agricultural estates that were Dominica’s chief source of wealth. Brunias documented colonial women of color as privileged and prosperous; the two wealthy sisters are distinguished from their mother and servants by their fitted European dresses.

The painting is a Caribbean version of contemporaneous English works made popular by artists such as William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, whose art often depicts the landed gentry engaged in leisurely pursuits. Although Brunias was originally commissioned to promote upper-class plantation life, his works soon assumed a more subversive, political role throughout the Caribbean as endorsements of a free, anti-slavery society, exposing the artificialities of racial hierarchies in the West Indies.