Sunday, 2 September 2018

Aboliitonist painting by Emma Soyer

Features on BBC1 Fake or Fortune tonight
It really wasn't difficult to identify the artist as she signed and dated the work on the elder girl's sash, and E Jones is readily found as the future wife of Alexis Soyer.
And it is very obviously an anti-slavery image [ the plastic palm trees are a giveaway, together with the Bible that enslaved people were prevented from reading, according to indignant campaigners]
It's a shame however that the programme did not search Abolitionist literature to see whether the painting was reproduced anywhere as an engraving, it carrying such an eloquent message.  it looks tailor-made for use by the movement.
It's also notable that it was painted in 1831 - the year  that ended with the great Jamaican slave revolt led by Samuel Sharpe,  when expectations of emancipation had been dashed.   This was the political context of an otherwise supremely sentimental picture.
Some Abolitionists in Britain and missionaries in the Caribbean had been predicting that William IV would end enslavement, and the work stoppage when this did not happen was countered by violence that killed hundreds of Black Jamaicans.   Only the election of the Reform parliament brought  anti-slavery legislation in Britain, initially in 1833, finally in 1838.
Another unexplored aspect of Emma Soyer's painting is its unrecorded history. It was not exhibited or sold in her lifetime, but , as 'Two Negro Children with a Book' passed in 1859 after her husband's death to one of his creditors.   Possibly the debts were paid off by Soyer's surviving brothers in France, which is where the canvas was when inherited by the present owner.
Emma Jones Soyer (1813-1842)  was a precociously successful and prolific artist
This stipple engraving is copied from a self-portrait showing herself at the easel.  The loose ringlets appear to date the likeness to around 1840.  She died  during pregnancy.


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