"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar

This 2016 portrait of Billy Lee by Titus Kaphar is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Billy Lee was enslaved at Mt. Vernon. Kaphar, in the words of the exhibition, “invokes the Grand Manner style with the waist length format, the finely tailored clothing and the gleam of silk.” But the face is “covered in a black viscous tar, making it difficult to see the works and portraits.” The exhibition signage goes on to describe Billy Lee:
“Lee, who served as the president’s valet during the Revolutionary War, was one of the most widely known African Americans of his time and was one of a few slaves manumitted by Washington in his will. Purported depictions of him appear in the background of several paintings, but he never received an official portrait of his own. Kaphar’s efforts to retroactively represent Lee… are contemporary interventions that purposely fail. By defacing the subject… Kaphar exposes scars of historical exclusion”  -- National Portrait Gallery
 One purported depiction of Billy Lee is in this 1789–1790 painting of The Washington Family by Edward Savage that hangs in the National Gallery of Art. The enslaved African American on the far right may be Billy Lee.

His clothing and his barely visible face may have inspired Kaphar's portrait.

Although the face is more visible in the engraving, also by Savage, Kaphar's work provides an eerie echo of the earlier work.

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