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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Visual Culture of the Atlantic World

The Atlantic World describes the interconnected web of social and financial economies that bound together the peoples and nations of Europe, West Africa, and North and South America from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. The interactions among peoples, spurred by colonial conquest and early capitalist economies, created a global visual and material culture produced not only by the artists of Europe, but also the creative and material contributions of peoples of African and Indigenous American descent. This is evident in the fine and decorative arts—from portraits representing the status of Atlantic merchants and diplomats, to silver tea services and mahogany tables made from colonial materials to serve elite tastes. Those that produced this culture range from well-known painters and artisans whose reputations were made in the Atlantic World, to the anonymous and enslaved workers whose hands harvested, crafted, and carried goods, even as their identities were erased from the record.

Beginning with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, the Atlantic World was shaped and financed by European colonization of the American continent and its turn to enslaved labor as a means of profiting from the resources of the land. The expansion of European control across the Atlantic Ocean and around the world coincided with new ideas about the construction of society and the nature of identity. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment notions of liberty as an innate human condition inspired revolutions in British American colonies, France, and the French colonial island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), as well as debates over the morality of slavery and the eventual abolition of the slave trade.

Within the Met collection, portraiture is an important medium by which the circuits of the Atlantic World are made visible. Portraits, conceived to present the status and identity of the individuals represented, track the movement of global goods and peoples across the ocean, and from one cultural context to another. In an increasingly mobile world, the inclusion of references to an Atlantic culture highlighted the sitter’s own cosmopolitanism. For example, in a colonial American portrait of the dry goods merchant Elijah Boardman, the imported stuff of the businessman’s trade—fine European textiles shipped across the Atlantic—are juxtaposed with his extensive library, including publications about George Anson and James Cook’s circumnavigations of the globe (1979.395).

For Europeans, access to newly discovered parts of the world produced a culture that marked the unfamiliar and foreign as signifiers of wealth and status. Materials ranging from Asian textiles to Caribbean pearls and coral, as well as non-European animals and people, were included in portraits as symbols of the refinement of the sitter. In a portrait by the French artist Nicolas de Largillierre, for example, the sitter’s status is represented not only by her grand architectural surroundings, finely made silk dress, and genteel comportment, but also by the presence of a brilliant green parrot and a turbaned black boy, whose enslaved condition is signaled by the metal collar around his neck (03.37.2). Both the parrot and the black child would have been seen by period viewers as representative of far-off locales—in this case, the jungles of South America and the coasts of West Africa—whose inclusion within a European work of art signified a form of mastery.

Paintings depicting enslaved men, women, and children of African descent as marginal figures were produced throughout the Atlantic World. They are demonstrative of the degree to which the economy of slavery and the aspirations of elite culture existed side by side. The intellectual and political ideals of the European Enlightenment that informed the period were fraught by their dependence on what was understood at the time as a morally ambiguous but financially necessary institution. The social networks of the Atlantic World meant that such ideas and attitudes moved beyond the borders of Europe to shape and be shaped by the contributions of colonial actors. For example, a portrait by John Trumbull of George Washington (24.109.88) dressed in the uniform of the Continental Army, alongside his enslaved servant Billy Lee, is suggestive of the ways in which the ideals of liberty and independence upon which the American Revolution was fought were made possible by complicity with slavery.

People of African descent are visible within the art history of the Atlantic World not only as subjects, but also as cultural producers. One such example is an ivory saltcellar carved by a sixteenth-century Edo artist from the kingdom of Benin, which represents the Portuguese traders newly arrived on their shores (1972.63a, b). In this period, Portuguese merchants traveled the Atlantic to the west coast of Africa, seeking trading opportunities beyond the Mediterranean. Benin ivory carvers produced objects for this new European market and recorded their impressions of the people and culture they encountered. Some 200 years later, another portrait highlighted the artistic contribution of a person of African descent (2010.105). Prince Demah Barnes is one of the earliest enslaved African American artists whose name is linked to his work. After acquiring artistic training in Boston and London, he executed portraits of the white friends of his owner following the conventions of the period, representing them as men of taste and learning. These works are a reminder that the Atlantic World was not limited to the perspective or skill of one culture or community. As makers, observers, and actors, people of color also shaped the modern global world.

In geography as well as industry, the trade and labor of enslaved people bound the Atlantic World together. Within this network, the plantation cultures of the Caribbean, southern North American colonies, and South America were of central importance for those invested in the production of luxury commodities like sugar and tobacco that answered the appetites of European and colonial American consumers. Furniture was also a part of this economy. Made fashionable by the English furniture maker Thomas Chippendale, mahogany became the wood of choice for furnishing the eighteenth-century homes of the elite, from London to Newport, Rhode Island (67.114.1). While the design of these cabinets, chairs, and tables was informed by European Rococo and Asian styles, the wood itself was sourced from South American forests and harvested by enslaved labor.

Careers were made in the ongoing contest of Atlantic empires. A seventeenth-century portrait by Anthony van Dyck, a Flemish artist to the English court, represents Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick (49.7.26), whose career involved trading interests in the Caribbean and Virginia, colonial charters in New England, and maritime engagements with the Spanish, who were Britain’s primary imperial rival in the Americas. Another such case from the eighteenth century is the U.S. statesman Alexander Hamilton, whose full-scale portrait celebrates his role as a New York leader in finance (2013.454). Born and raised on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and Saint Croix, Hamilton came of age within a transnational milieu of imperial conflict and economic competition. The young Hamilton’s acumen in finance and trade prompted Saint Croix’s wealthy to finance his emigration to British North America to continue his education. In the period of the American Revolution, Hamilton rose to prominence as a lawyer, soldier, and statesmen—a trusted advisor to George Washington and the first secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton’s connection to the Caribbean informed the priority he placed on Atlantic trade as a path to national power, as well as his friendly attitude to British and European interests.

As much as the institution of slavery was an Atlantic network, so too were efforts to abolish it. At the turn of the nineteenth century, abolitionist campaigns—spearheaded by formerly enslaved people, white politicians, and religious societies, in particular the Quakers—urged public opinion against the slave trade. These efforts were transatlantic, as black and white American supporters provided accounts of the cruelty of slavery that contributed to the arguments and legislation put forward by British advocates. Art, too, played a role in changing hearts and minds. Most famously, the British potter Josiah Wedgwood produced a seal for the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England that represented a chained man kneeling in profile, bearing the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” (08.242). The emblem was prolifically reproduced across media, becoming a mainstay of the décor of pro-abolitionist homes. Represented on medallions, teapots, or other decorative objects, the seal aestheticized the campaign, appealing to the tastes of cultured white women and men.

A similar effort to articulate the concerns of abolition through art was also ventured by an American artist with ties to the Philadelphia community of antislavery Quakers. Samuel Jennings’s ambitious history painting Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences—represented in the Met collection in a preliminary oil study—shows an allegory of Liberty as a white woman alongside two groups of figures of African descent whose postures suggest gratitude and celebration (2016.50). The painting further emphasizes the transatlantic nature of abolitionism, as Jennings painted it in London, where he was studying art, and shipped it to Philadelphia for display at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The Atlantic World was formed by the global turn in culture. Works of art from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century visualize a world drawing more closely together, reflecting the diversity of a new global realm fueled by financial speculation and material desire, and produced by the labor of colonized peoples. The cultures and events that came together around the Atlantic in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries signify one of the earliest instantiations of the modern world.