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A case of mistaken identity

Over the next week, we are pairing excerpts from Jim Johnston’s From Slave Ship to Harvard with the historical comic strip “Flashbacks” by Patrick Reynolds. Together they tell the story of Yarrow Mamout. Read previous posts “A painter and his subject’s humble origins,” and “A former slave in Georgetown,” and “Freedom delayed, bought, lost, and regained.”

Cartoonist Patrick Reynolds' "Flashbacks." Used with permission. http://redrosestudio.com/.

Since Peale took the painting with him back to Philadelphia, Yarrow obviously did not pay for it. There is no record of whether Peale displayed it in the museum or showed it to the American Philosophical Society. He died in 1829, but the museum continued to operate. When it finally closed in 1852, Peale’s grandson Edmund came across the painting and mistakenly labeled it “Billy Lee,” thinking his grandfather had painted the body servant of George Washington. That the portrait might be of Lee was not an unreasonable assumption. Peale knew him during the terrible winter at Valley Forge. In 1804, after Washington’s death, Peale had stopped by Mount Vernon. While there, he sought out Lee and reminisced about the old days.

This identification of the painting lasted until 1947 when Peale’s biographer Charles Coleman Sellers carefully matched the painting to Peale’s diary entries and concluded the painting was of Yarrow Mamout. Besides, Sellers wrote, “It is not reasonable to suppose that Peale would have painted Billy Lee in his old age, for, despite faithful service to General Washington, Billy was a drunkard and a cripple in his last years at Mount Vernon.” Yet as recently as 1994, a New York Times reporter, writing about an exhibit of the painting, could still get justifiably confused. She identified the painting as “Yarrow Mamout, a servant of George Washington.”

In concluding that the painting of Yarrow had been incorrectly identified, Sellers did not seem to know that Georgetown artist James Alexander Simpson also did a portrait of Yarrow. This second painting certainly would have cinched it for Sellers. It might also have piqued his curiosity. When Elizabeth Broun, the director of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, was asked about the two paintings in connection with the research on this book, she focused on the fact that formal portraits of African Americans prior to the Civil War were rare, and yet there are two of Yarrow Mamout.

Little is known about James Alexander Simpson. The only published research on him concluded he was born in England around 1805, later came to America, and settled in Frederick, Maryland. He subsequently moved to Georgetown. The 1820 census shows a James Simpson living there; of course, it might have been a different man.

Simpson did the portrait of Yarrow in 1822. He became an instructor of drawing and painting at Georgetown College three years later. If the 1805 date of birth is correct, then Simpson was only seventeen years old when he painted Yarrow and twenty when he started teaching at Georgetown. He taught only if there were enough students for a class. Otherwise, he occupied himself by painting the town, the college, and the residents of Georgetown. Many of those paintings still exist. How Simpson himself learned to paint is unknown. His painting of Yarrow is in the possession of the Peabody Room at the Georgetown branch of the District of Columbia library.

Simpson moved to Baltimore in 1860 and died twenty years later. Today, several of his other works are on display at Georgetown University. His painting of Commodore Stephen Decatur, which Simpson copied from a Gilbert Stuart portrait, once hung in the office of the university president.

James H. Johnston, an attorney and journalist, has published extensively on national affairs, law, telecommunications, history, and the arts. His contributions include papers on local Washington, D.C., history, Yarrow Mamout, and an edition of The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough. He is the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.

Instead of entertaining readers with make-believe characters, cartoonist Patrick Reynolds draws history. His “Flashbacks” about historical figures and events are carried in Sunday papers around the country. Recently, Reynolds has retold the story of Yarrow Mamout, relying in part on articles by Jim Johnston. The Washington Post in Yarrow’s Georgetown and the Staten Island Advance for New Yorkers carried the series. Reynolds makes quality history accessible to young readers as well as to adults.

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