A Painting by Agostino Brunias for the Brooklyn Museum

Agostino Brunias (1730-1796)
Three Creole Women Accompanied by their Children
and their Servants in a Landscape
, c. 1764-1796
Oil on Canvas – 50.8 x 66.4 cm
New York, Brooklyn Museum
Photo : Brooklyn Museum

10/8/11 - Acquisition - New York, Brooklyn Museum - The West Indies in the 18th century seen by Agostino Brunias have now joined the many other cultures on view at the Brooklyn Museum. Purchased from the London gallery, Robilant + Voena, a painting by the artist representing Three Creole Women with their Children and Servants in a Landscape (around 1764-1796) has been added to the museum collections (ill.). In fact, it will be part of an exhibition planned for 2013, featuring the private collections of elite colonials which will bring together about 200 paintings, drawings, engravings, sculptures and decorative arts pieces, curated by Rich Aste [1].
Born in Rome around 1730, Agostino Brunias, also known as Augustin Brunias, became a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1748. His solid training was noticed in 1756 by the Scottish architect Robert Adam during his Grand Tour who asked him to draw the antique ruins all over Italy. Later, Brunias joined him in London as of 1758, worked for him for several years and produced large Neo-Classical decorative paintings in the buildings designed by Adam ; he also exhibited landscapes corresponding to the fashion for an imaginary Antiquity, at the Free Society of Artists. Brunias then collaborated with the architect William Chambers before being called by Sir William Young, first governor of Dominica, which became a British possession in 1763. The artist thus set sail for the West Indies in 1770, where he discovered tropical landscapes, bright colors, a mixture of populations, in brief, exoticism, all a far cry from the silent poetry of antique ruins.

A blend of portraits and genre scenes, his canvases are a detailed illustration of customs and costumes in the islands, not only Dominica, but also Barbados, Saint Vincent and Saint Christopher. Though he was charged mainly with painting the members of the elite society, the artist also described market scenes or dances, chronicling the economic and social life of the country, evoking a world where the Antilles, Europe and Africa meet and mix resulting in a population of Caribbean Indians, Europeans, Africans, Creoles and mulattos.
The painting acquired by the Brooklyn Museum is an excellent illustration of these mixed cultures : Two creole or "mestizo" women stand out from the rest of the group ; dressed in European clothing but wearing the head scarf of local custom. These are perhaps sisters, accompanied by their mother, their children and their African servants. They are from a wealthy family, no doubt owners of a sugar plantation. Here, Agostino Brunias gives us an exotic version of the portraits of British landowners painted by William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough. After returning to England in 1773, he produced paintings based on the sketches he had brought back and whose exoticism soon charmed the public. His work was then made popular throughout Europe thanks to engravings.

Though this is an anachronism, Brunias’ art was at times qualified as being Naif. It is above all the fruit of faithful observation and attempts to convey an ethnographic truth which anthropologists found valuable. Some critics reproached (and continue to do so today) his idyllic vision of colonialism ; others, on the contrary, glimpsed a subersive judgement which speaks out for a free society, rid of slavery, denouncing the absurdity of racial hierarchy. Toussaint Louverture himself wore a coat with buttons [2] decorated with scenes inspired by Brunias’ work. Perhaps this painting where the viewer perceives "ordre et beauté, luxe, calme et volupté" is only an invitation to travel and this world apparently inhabited by a harmonious co-existence of its figures evokes simply a popular myth prevalent in the 18th century : that of the Noble Savage.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, jeudi 11 août 2011


[1] Rich Aste joined the Brooklyn Museum in the spring of 2010 as curator of European art collections.

[2] Some are held at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

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