This pre-Civil War flamboyant upper-class portrait represents an American planter of mixed origin, who most probably lived in Louisiana. He was a Creole, so-called ‘free man of color’, who clearly had his own slaves. He was born out of the relationship between a black or a Creole woman and a white man. Their liaison had been sealed by a so-called ‘left-hand marriage’.
About our portrait of a ‘free man of color’
Sadly I did not find any information about our painter (with the initials ‘H.M.D.H’), nor was I able to identify the portrayed man. It represents a planter of mixed race who belonged to the ‘free people of color’. He lived most probably in Louisiana. In the background one sees two of his black slaves between a hut and a palm tree.
Indeed our painting represents nor a black man, nor a white man, but a person of mixed blood: it must be a descendant of a white European, colonist father and a mother who was either a black slave or a woman of mixed race. Extramarital relationships of this kind were not uncommon. The children resulting from these relations became either slaves or freedmen (‘free people of color’).
- In case these children were considered black (an implication of racial purity theories) they joined their mother into slavery.
An example of that first category was Sally Hemings. She was three quarter European, but remained a slave for almost her entire life. Sally was actually the half-sister and slave of the white wife of the third President of the USA, Thomas Jefferson. After his wife’s death Jefferson started a long-term relationship with Sally and it would now seem that he was the father of all six of her children born after his wife’s death. Sally remained a slave until the President’s death. His daughter, thus Sally’s niece, then finally freed her.
- In case these children were lucky and they had only one eight or in some cases one fourth of African ancestry such a mixed race children became freedmen, ‘free people of color’, ‘Creoles of color’.
A fair number of such a mulatto people, called ‘affranchis’ or ‘gens de couleurs’ had lived in the French colonies of Haiti and of Louisiana. Many of them were prosperous, they owned plantations and had slaves. Present-day Louisiana was a French colony between 1682 and 1763, it turned Spanish between 1763 and 1800 and then for just a few years French again. After the Haitian War of Knives during 1799/1800, many of the French ‘free people of color’ from Haiti settled also in S. Louisiana and in the city of New Orleans. In 1803 the USA (under the already mentioned President Thomas Jefferson) doubled its surface by buying from Napoleon land that runs today in 15 US states and in 2 Canadian provinces (‘the Louisiana Purchase’), including the present state of Louisiana.
In 1803 New Orleans had roughly a population of 8.000 inhabitants, at least one out of six was a free person of color. By 1810 the first official US census of the Orleans territory shows their number had increased to almost 10% of the population. So-called Creoles of color lived also in Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish and the Cane River Area around Natchitoches (Nakadish).
Many white Caucasian men had a relationship with women of African or of mixed Creole origin. These relations where called ‘plaçage’, from the French verb ‘placer’ (to place with) or ‘left-hand marriages’. The couple was not legally married, but their relationship was recognized by this extra-legal system. The Louisiana Creoles should be seen as people of mixed French, Spanish, African and Native American ancestry.
While in the Southern states the plantation economy was completely based on slavery of black people to grow cotton, but also sugar, tobacco or hemp, in the Northern states abolitionism became a popular expression of moralism. The importation of new slaves from Africa was prohibited in 1808 by the USA. In 1819 the Missouri Compromise dived the country in two: N. states where slavery was prohibited and S. states where it was tolerated. In 1822 Liberia was founded in W. Africa by the American Colonization Society as a colony for emancipated slaves. The Southern states were driven into the defensive in regard to slavery and harsh legislation surfaced here regarding ‘African Americans’, both black slaves and free men of color.
Many free men of color moved to the Northern states, to Southern America, the Caribbean or to France, others were able to pass as white in the USA. By 1860 Louisiana counted only 2,6% of free people of color, against 47% of black slaves and just over 50% of whites.
Louisiana's economy had boomed thanks to its plantation economy based on slavery. By 1840 New Orleans was the largest slave market, the third-largest city and one of the wealthiest towns in the USA.
But after the election of the anti-slavery Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln as new president the Southern slaveholding states wanted to form a new, independent nation and the American Civil War broke out in April 1861. It lasted until May 1865, when the Unionist N. states finally beat the secessionist Confederate S. states. During the War President Lincoln ordered in 1863 the freedom of all slaves in the S. states and finally in June 1864 the abolishment of slavery in the USA.
At the outbreak of the War free men of color from Louisiana volunteered to defend the Confederacy and its slave-based economy. After the war those who had been planters lost their plantations and their slaves, others like P.B.S. Pinchback turned into politics; he became the first Afro-American governor of a U.S. state, of Louisiana.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because this painting is an important historic record of the early pre-Civil War period in the USA.