Mary Sabina (b. 1736)
Unframed H: 26" Unframed W: 22" Framed H: 30 1/8" Framed W: 26 1/2"
Oil on canvas; painting stretchers = Spruce (Picea)
Museum Purchase through the generosity of an Anonymous Donor
Acc. No. 1984-45
A full-length depiction of a dark-brown-and-white spotted girl clothed only by a bit of blue drapery looped about her middle. She wears two bracelets, a necklace, and an earring dangles from her proper right ear lobe (the other side of her head not being shown). She supports a small green parrot on her outstretched proper left hand. A painted cartouche in the lower right corner of the painting is inscribed with references to the subject. Behind the girl, a mountainous horizon line appears about the level of the girl's navel, with sky above. A palm or thatched-roof building with a cross atop it can be seen below and beyond the girl's outstretched arm.
Label:This depiction of a “dappled negro” girl by an English painter in the Caribbean is a striking illustration of scientific interest in natural phenomena. The child’s skin condition (now known as vitiligo) was the subject of scholarly discourses delivered before learned societies. Afflicted individuals were occasionally sent to London for examination.
The primary question raised by this phenomenon was whether all men were of the same species or whether various races formed separate species, some superior and others inferior. William Byrd II of Virginia presented his observations on the subject to the Royal Society in London as early as 1697. John Mitchell of Virginia wrote at great length on the topic about the time this portrait was painted; his findings were also presented in London. The discussion continued at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in the 1780s and 1790s, with Thomas Jefferson voicing his opinions. The Society, similar to the Royal Society of London, continues to support education and research in the physiological sciences to this day.
Provenance:The painting's early history is unknown. In the early 20th century, it hung at Teddesley Park (demolished in 1955), Staffordshire, England; it was given by the 5th Lord Hatherton to his sister, The Honorable Hestar Littleton, Winchester, England; sold at Christie's, London, 22 October 1976; W. Graham Arader III, King of Prussia, Pa.; acquired from the latter with funds provided by an anonymous donor.
Inscription(s):Inscribed in black paint on the cartouche within the composition is: "The true/ Picture of Mary---/Sabina, who was born/octr 12 1736, at Matuna, a/Plantation belonging to/ye Jesuit's in ye City of Car/tangena in America of/two Negroe Slaves Named/Martiniano & Patrona."