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An African muslim among the founding fathers, Charles Willson Peale’s Yarrow Mamout

Charles Wilson Peale painted a portrait of Yarrow Mamout, an African Muslim who lived a long life in the U.S. after being forcibly brought here. The painting, from 1819, shows Yarrow's wisdom and intellect, despite his past as a slave. Peale, who also founded the first successful public museum in the U.S., painted Yarrow with the same respect as American heroes. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at a portrait of Charles Wilson Peale of Yarrow Mamout, an African Muslum, a man who had been forcibly brought to the United States and spent a very long life here and he paints him with the same regard that he painted American heroes. - [Carol] It's interesting because he began the portrait because he wanted to document his age which was supposedly 134 years old. The idea of an African American Muslim is interesting because they're may have been 10% of the total slave population that came into this country up until the first quarter in mid-19th Century. - [Steven] It's extraordinary that we're looking at a painting from 1819 and yet this man feels alive in front of me. - [Carol] Peale was in his late 70s when he painted this so you have this dialogue between these two older men looking at each other across their lifetimes. - [Steven] And these men had just recently met and despite that, the portrait seems to convey a deep understanding of who this man was. You get a sense that Peale wanted to know this man, wanted to understand him. - [Carol] Yarrow owned property, he owned his own home. He owned bank stocks, he had enough money to offer loans to people. When you look in his eyes, you see the wisdom, you see the intellect. - [Steven] The figure is framed by paint that is less defined. The gray coat that he wears over his shoulders is more loosely painted. It seems to me that there's an increasing focus as we move towards the face which comes into its most precise definition right around the eyes. - [Carol] Yes there's a connectivity and you don't see this in so many portraits and some of this has to do with age, with experience. With Peale's appreciation of what it took Yarrow to survive, to persevere. - [Steven] And he had every reason to be embittered. He had lost money that he had given to others. He had been, of course, himself, enslaved. There was every reason for this man to be bitter and yet Peale found a man who he described as having a positive attitude in life despite his life experiences. - [Carol] And this was something that really connected with Charles Wilson Peale because his motto was perseverance. In fact, he named his farm in Germantown initially Persevere. - [Steven] Peale had founded what was really the first successful public museum in the United States. - [Carol] It began as a portrait gallery in 1784 where he had portraits of revolutionary heroes. It grew as he added natural science specimens to the museum and then the portrait gallery grew also to include not just revolutionary heroes or military men, but also scientists who were dedicated to the study of natural science, writers, artists and he had paintings of people of age and here is Yarrow. Yarrow seems an anomaly in this gallery. What is he doing next to the portrait of presidents? What is he doing next to Thomas Say, the great naturalist and the fact that he was painted when Peale took a painting trip to Washington to raise federal funds for his museum and he painted the President. So he's painting the President and Yarrow Mamout basically within the same week. Also the format of the picture is the classic 25 by 30 inch portrait that you saw all of them. So everybody is put on the same level in this gallery and that nobody's bitter and nobody is shown in a different way. Your head is there, your shoulders are there and that's it. - [Steven] Yarrow was openly Muslim. He would praise god in the streets of Georgetown. He would pray in his garden in back of his house and Peale was not shying away from that here. - [Carol] And I think this is a portrait that reaches back to you. You can see that the artist looked at Yarrow and in fact, the great punchline that Peale records in his diary is about how he showed the portrait to Yarrow when it was finally finished and Yarrow looked at it and says it's Yarrow himself. - [Steven] And the artist was a real American hero. He had been at Valley Forge with Washington. He had crossed the Delaware with Washington. - [Carol] Then of course Charles Willson Peale has seen all the different manifestations of slavery at the worst, but also he was seeing before this and kind of contemporaneously with this, the rise of the free black population in Philadelphia which was a unique phenomenon in the country where people were becoming literate and becoming competitive in the marketplace. When the Peale gallery came apart and was finally sold in 1854 long after Peale's death, nobody knew who this was and so they figured it could only be one person, Washington's servant. So they put Washington's servant in the auction catalog. That shows how invisible he had become and I think one of the great things about this portrait is its visibility. This is not a black man disappeared. This is not an African Muslim disappeared. This is a person that the artist has seen and testified to with his own skill and his own eyes. (light jazzy piano music)