Phillis Wheatley

After (?) Scipio Moorhead American
Publisher Archibald Bell British
Sitter Phillis Wheatley American, born Africa

Not on view

This print portrays the first Black American enslaved woman to have her writings published. Phillis Wheatley sits at a table holding a quill pen, her head resting on the other hand in a pose that indicates creative thought. The image is also the first known individual portrait of an American woman of African descent and was made as the frontispiece for the author's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religion and Moral" (London, 1773; second edition London and Boston, 1773). Today, many scholars believe that Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved man of African descent who lived near the author in Boston, created the image—Wheatley dedicated one of her poems "To S.M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works," and his identity was later established from a note she had made in a copy of her book. His name is not engraved on the print, however, and early commentators on Wheatley do not mention him as the designer. Moorhead's achievements as an artist remain obscure because none of his drawings or paintings are known to survive [see References, Slaughter 2013].

Born in West Africa, the author was kidnapped at the age of seven or eight, transported to North America, and purchased in Boston by the merchant John Wheatley. Intended as a household servant to the latter's wife Susannah. Phillis arrived near death but recovered when nursed by Susannah, then quickly learned English and became literate; her reading paralled that of Susannah and John's twins, Mary and Nathaniel. Her evident gifts as a poet were encouraged and examples sent to contemporary newspapers and printed as broadsheets. Publishing a book of her poetry required British support, however, and a sympathetic patron was found in Selena Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, a devout Methodist who responded to the religious character of Phillis's poems. In 1773, Phillis and Nathaniel traveled to London and there met with Archibald Bell, whom the countess had secured as printer and publisher. A few months before, the countess had suggested that a frontispiece image be added to the projected book. Phillis's portrait probably was drawn or painted in Boston (a drawing would more easily have been translated into a print), then sent to London to be engraved. Versions of the print with full margins, as seen in Wheatley's book, include engraved text along the bottom that credits Archibald Bell as publisher but doen't identify the artist (the Met's impression has been trimmed to the oval frame of the image so lack's Bell's name). While in London—between early June and July 26, 1773—Phillis made final edits and met admirers of her poems, including the Earl of Dartmouth, Sir Brook Watson, and Benjamin Franklin. With printing still in underway, she returned to Boston earlier than planned to be with Susannah, who had fallen ill and would die on March 3, 1774.

Text engraved around the border of the printed portrait describes Phillis as "Negro servant to John Wheatley, of Boston" (this is repeated on the book's title page). The word servant was commonly used at that time as a euphemism for a Black enslaved person whose work was domestic. The phrase indicates Phillis's status when her book first appeared for sale in London in August 1773. But, by late January 1774 when the second edition was offered at Mssrs. Cox & Berry in Boston, she was a free woman. At Susannah’s request, John Wheatley manumented (legally freed) Phillis sometime between late December 1773 and early January 1774. Still financially dependant on the Wheatley family, Phillis experienced growing difficulties as its members passed away. She married a free Black man who fell into debt, and she seems to have lost two infant children. The post Revolutionary War environment proved less responsive to Phillis's writings and she found no publisher for a second volume of her poems. With her fragile health undermined by poverty, Phillis died at the age of thirty or thirty-one.

We may never know with certainty who created Phillis Wheatley’s portrait, or engraved it, but, as Marcia Pointon has noted [see References, Pointon 2013], the print does more than simply show the poet pausing to think. By surrounding her with paper, an inkwell, book and pen, the artist used imagery of the period to signal that Wheatley was literate and gentile. The border text would have raised different expectations, however, as the author's rocky road to publication demonstrates. A first attempt to bring Wheatley’s poems to press in Boston failed because potential local subscribers thought it impossible that a young Black woman, so recently arrived from Africa, could have composed such intellectually sophisticated verse. Even after the author successfully proved herself to a group of White male Harvard-educated Bostonians, support was not forthcoming. It took the Countess of Huntingdon's status and faith, in all senses of that word, to bring the book to press in Britain and, as Archibald Bell noted in a London newspaper advertisement, Wheatley's prominent London visitors sought her out partly to assure themselves of her authenticity. The first London edition of about 300 copies included the frontispiece, title page and thirty-eight poems. The second, sold in both London and Boston, added a dedication to the countess, an author's preface, a brief biography written by John Wheatley, and a testimonial affirming Phillis Wheatley’s authorship signed by the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and sixteen prominent Bostonians.

Phillis Wheatley, After (?) Scipio Moorhead (American, active Boston, 1760–75), Engraving

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