Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2019
Mia L. Bagneris Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017. 272 pp.; 68 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781526120458)

On August 7, 1981, a senior staff member at the Yale Center for British Art wrote an internal memorandum recommending the sale of ten works in the center’s collection by a little-known artist named Agostino Brunias (ca. 1730–1796). Among the reasons he gave were that the Italian-born Brunias “is not English and very, very minor,” and that his paintings, which depict scenes of life in the British West Indies, bore only “tenuous connection with British Studies.” Suggesting that the works might be of interest to Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center or Peabody Museum of Natural History, he concluded, “I do not think we ought to stub our toe over such an unimportant pebble.” In the end, the paintings were not sold. Now highly valued, Brunias’s small, vibrant pictures have recently taken on a prominent role in the center’s displays.

Mia Bagneris opens her new book, Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias, with this anecdote in order to illustrate the seismic changes that have taken place in British art studies over the last four decades. In this time, work by a large and growing number of scholars, such as Tim Barringer, Kay Dian Kriz, Geoff Quilley, and Beth Fowkes Tobin, to name a few, has moved the concept of empire—and with it, histories of slavery and colonization—from the far margins to the very center of current accounts of British art and visual culture. To date, however, much of this work has tended to focus on broad themes rather than individuals. By contrast, Bagneris skillfully shows how much can be mined from the life and work of a single artist who both embodied and registered so many of the complexities and instabilities of Britain’s rapidly expanding imperial world. Interweaving the close visual analysis of individual paintings with evidence culled from period sources and historical scholarship, and with perspectives drawn from African diaspora studies, colonial and postcolonial studies, and critical race theory, she constructs a deeply original and unprecedentedly comprehensive interpretation of Brunias’s rich and enigmatic oeuvre.

Born in Italy and trained in Rome, Brunias moved to London in 1758 to work as a draftsman and decorative painter for the prominent architect Robert Adam (1728–1792). Sometime between 1764 and 1770, he left Adam’s employ and traveled to the British West Indies under the patronage of Sir William Young. A powerful and wealthy aristocrat and plantation owner, Young served terms as governor of St. Vincent and Dominica, two Lesser Antilles islands that Britain had recently won from France during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Though Young returned to Britain in 1773, Brunias settled permanently in the Caribbean, where he continued to paint for other members of the islands’ colonial elite (he traveled back to London only once, for a few years in the late 1770s). During this time, he produced a large body of work that focuses overwhelmingly on the many and diverse communities of color who inhabited the region.

Though a monograph, Colouring the Caribbean does not elevate or glorify its subject in any conventional sense. Brunias, the author writes, “was not, by any accepted definition of the term, an artistic genius.” Instead, “[his] primary significance . . . exists not in his technical or aesthetic innovation but in his unique imagining of the British colonial project in the West Indies during the late eighteenth century” (24). Above all, that “imagining” centers, as her title indicates, on the construction and representation of race and racial difference across his oeuvre. Brunias’s works, she argues, consistently perform two conflicting operations at once. On the one hand, and most superficially, they articulate and reify emergent forms of racialized thinking that increasingly designated skin color—as opposed to other signifiers, such as clothing, manners, language, and systems of government—as the principal marker of human difference. On the other hand, and more significantly, they trouble and undermine these very ways of thinking by exposing their constructedness and contradictions.

The book’s chapters explore successive iterations of this central tension through an examination of four discrete though interrelated categories of imagery in Brunias’s work, beginning with his pictures of the indigenous Caribs of St. Vincent. By the late eighteenth century, this population was jointly composed of South American and African ancestries. However, British colonialists were invested in and actively promoted a narrative that artificially divided it in two, pitting the “good” “Red Caribs” (allegedly of South American descent) against the “bad” “Black Caribs” (allegedly of African descent). Brunias’s ethnographically inflected pictures of these “two” populations do much to confirm and reinforce this view. And yet, at the same time, Bagneris shows, they also present a more complex, more hybrid, and therefore more threatening image of Black Carib identity than most colonialist sources allowed, revealing it to be “at once Carib, African, Western, and none of these things” (75).

Chapter 2 shifts to Brunias’s depictions of African and Afro-Creole people. Of all the artist’s works, these scenes of leisure, commerce, and merrymaking conform most readily to the conventional view of him as “the plantocracy’s painter” (92). While acknowledging that such pictures set forth an idealized view of the lives of the enslaved, one that denies and obscures the brutal realities of slavery and slave labor, Bagneris lays even greater stress on the ways they “undermine the plantocratic script” by “develop[ing] a picture of an explicitly Afro-Caribbean world, a place where whites have no significant point of entry” (115, 125). Drawing important distinctions between Brunias’s work and that of two other Caribbean-based artists, George Robertson (1749–1788) and Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795–1849), with whom he is often compared, she emphasizes the uniquely subversive nature of the former, which alone presents its black West Indian subjects as individual agents in possession of their own, independent culture and by implication capable—at least potentially—of resistance.

The next chapter concentrates on Brunias’s best known and most discussed works: his pictures of mixed-race women. Here Bagneris seeks to explain why the figure of the brown-skinned beauty, or mulatress, appears so often and in such variety in the artist’s Caribbean works. She finds the answer not only, as past scholars have argued, in the mulatress’s ability to stand as a visual metaphor for the partially “civilized” state of British West Indian society, but also and most especially in her highly charged sexual status as both product and object of white male desire. The final chapter turns to paintings in Brunias’s oeuvre that include racially ambiguous bodies, which is to say, bodies that cannot be securely identified by their physical appearance alone as white or of color. Departing from the standard view that the artist’s paintings aimed primarily to delimit and fix racial boundaries, Bagneris makes a persuasive case that they, in fact, do the very opposite. By raising, and leaving unanswered, the question of a given figure’s racial identity, Brunias lays bare the fiction of “race” itself. At once “visually insistent and visually elusive,” it is a thing, his works seem to suggest, that resides only and “quite literally, in the eye of the beholder” (191, 188).

What emerges from Bagneris’s account is a fundamentally new and infinitely more complex conception of Brunias’s art. For the first time, it becomes possible to see how paintings that once appealed to Britain’s plantocratic elite could later come to be associated (however apocryphally) with the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, a development that Bagneris explores in a short but richly suggestive coda. Throughout, she makes deft use of theoretical and historical sources to support her arguments, although at times her analyses could have been strengthened by more rigorous attention to the latter. For example, she asserts that Brunias’s pictures of Afro-Creole life make visible a world that was largely off-limits to white settlers. Yet she provides no explanation, or even speculation, as to how Brunias himself or the European and white Creole authors whose writings she cites gained the access they did, leaving us to wonder if perhaps such scenes were not so “invisible” after all (126). And in chapter 3, she compares Brunias’s Mulatresses and Negro Woman Bathing (ca. 1765–96) to works by artists ranging from Giuseppe Cesari, Titian, and Rembrandt to Jean-Marc Nattier and Jean-Léon Gérôme without recounting whether or how these could have actually been a source or object of influence.

But these are minor criticisms of a work that is to be praised and valued for the contributions it makes to our understanding of one artist’s work as well as to broader histories of empire, slavery, and race. In her lush visual analyses, Bagneris artfully deploys twenty-first century language to describe eighteenth-century pictures—a mixed-race planter is “dressed to beat the heat”; skin tones range from “dark chocolate” to “vanilla cream”; and some figures may be “pale, but, then again, not as pale as all that” (1, 157, 2–3)—as if to remind us that Brunias’s paintings belong as much to our present as they do to the past. As scholars continue to explore his works and the visual culture of which they were a part, Bagneris’s text is sure to become a key point of reference and departure.

Meredith Gamer
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Columbia University