The Lady Lever Art Gallery is placing a painting featuring an enslaved African person at the front and centre of its displays. The oil painting of Catherine-Marie Legendre, painted about 1705 and attributed to Jean Baptiste Santerre (1658-1717), is the only item in the gallery’s collection, from the 18th century, to depict a person of colour.
Following a period in conservation, the painting will be on display from 1 October 2021 in a new and more prominent place on the gallery, inviting comment from the public.
The painting will be displayed with a label which asks:
“Does this portrait belong on the walls of the gallery today? Does its display help us tell and understand the history of slavery? Or does it continue to honour someone who benefitted from the slave trade? In light of recent international events, we want to know what our visitors think. We are displaying the portrait to be transparent with visitors and begin this conversation. You can share your thoughts with us by emailing BlackLivesMatter@liverpoolmuseums.org.uk.”
This disturbing portrait by Santerre is designed to impress by showing the sitter’s wealth and position in society. It shows a young boy, who is an enslaved African person, brought from a plantation to work as an unpaid house servant. He is wearing a decorative metal slave collar around his neck. His name is not known, but the sitter is Catherine-Marie Legendre (or Le Gendre, died 1749), the wife of French nobleman, Claude Pecoil (1629-1722), Marquise de Septème.
Catherine-Marie’s hand rests on the enslaved servant’s head to signify her ownership. It was not uncommon for wealthy white women to be painted with a Black servant in this way. In paintings, people of colour were used to highlight the paleness of the sitter’s skin, which was considered a sign of beauty. Often dressed in ornate outfits, enslaved servants were depicted in paintings as trappings of wealth. The boy is offering a bowl of rare and exotic fruit to Catherine-Marie to emphasise her life of wealth and abundance.
Alyson Pollard, Head of the Lady Lever Art Gallery said:
“The Lady Lever Art Gallery is seeking to display, more openly, the Black histories and stories linked to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its legacies which are hidden in the collections. Displaying a problematic and disturbing painting, like this, prominently and acknowledging its context is the beginning of a long term project to ensure our collections are not seen and viewed through a single historic lens but instead reflect multiple histories.
“This painting by Santerre is unique in the collection, being the only representation of a person of colour from the 18th century. Unfortunately, not much is known about the boy in the painting, which is true of many of the enslaved men, women and children and the histories we try to document across our venues, particularly in the International Slavery Museum. The Santerre painting was previously displayed high up on a wall in the William and Mary room and under reflective glass. Its depiction of life for the very wealthy and of the injustices suffered by people of colour at this time make this a very striking image and one which we felt needed to be in a more prominent location.”
This intervention is one of several actions which the Lady Lever Art Gallery is taking in response to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd. The gallery has updated its website to acknowledge Lever’s activities in West Africa during the period 1911 to 1925 and has started the process of reinterpreting its collection, starting with a key work by Sir Joshua Reynolds painted in 1782 entitled ‘Mrs Peter Beckford’. The new text on gallery, as of February 2021, now recognises: “Peter Beckford, like many of his Beckford relatives, had plantations in Jamaica and the West Indies. The profits made from the labour of the enslaved people on his estates helped fund the Beckford’s lavish lifestyle.” The gallery is currently engaged in research into Lever’s legacy and is reinterpreting its collection to fully reflect the histories of the collection.
For more information on National Museums Liverpool’s response to Black Lives Matter see www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/blacklivesmatter.
Image Peter Carr