Free West Indian Dominicans
Agostino Brunias (1728–1796)
West Indies, for the British market
oil on canvas
12.5 x 9.75 in (31.8 x 24.8 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, Connecticut
Not on view
Agostino Brunias’ West Indian paintings offer sanitized images of slavery, but the textiles worn by his subjects are rendered in fine detail and correspond with many firsthand European accounts. Well-to-do whites and free persons of color had access to the latest European modes, setting them apart from the enslaved. Yet, even among enslaved persons there existed a social hierarchy articulated, in no small part, by clothing. In the background of the scene of the three women, a laboring man pushing a barrel wears nothing but breeches while a boy seated in the foreground is dressed in a complete outfit, suggesting he works in the main house rather than the fields. A distinctive Creole style developed in the region as European fashions were integrated with African modes such as the head wrap, worn by nearly all women regardless of race or social status. Weekly markets throughout the Caribbean were dynamic sites of economic and social exchange where colorful textiles could be acquired and enslaved persons could participate as both buyers and sellers in global trade networks.