1 of 2

Agostino Brunias (sometimes anglicised to ‘Augustin’) was an Italian painter who lived and worked in the West Indies for more than twenty-five years. His remarkable paintings play a key role in the continuing debate around the portrayal of black and mixed-race subjects in European art at this date and prompt challenging questions about Europe’s role in colonialism and slavery in the late eighteenth century.

Brunias was born in Rome and moved to Britain in 1758 after befriending the Scottish architect Robert Adam who was in Italy on a Grand Tour. Brunias collaborated with Adam on several major interior schemes and five of his early works, painted in the classical style, are now in the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1764 Brunias travelled to the British West Indies under the patronage of Sir William Young, the newly appointed ‘President of the Commission for the Sale of Ceded Lands in Dominica, Saint Vincent, Grenada and Tobago’. These lands...

Read more

Agostino Brunias (sometimes anglicised to ‘Augustin’) was an Italian painter who lived and worked in the West Indies for more than twenty-five years. His remarkable paintings play a key role in the continuing debate around the portrayal of black and mixed-race subjects in European art at this date and prompt challenging questions about Europe’s role in colonialism and slavery in the late eighteenth century.

Brunias was born in Rome and moved to Britain in 1758 after befriending the Scottish architect Robert Adam who was in Italy on a Grand Tour. Brunias collaborated with Adam on several major interior schemes and five of his early works, painted in the classical style, are now in the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1764 Brunias travelled to the British West Indies under the patronage of Sir William Young, the newly appointed ‘President of the Commission for the Sale of Ceded Lands in Dominica, Saint Vincent, Grenada and Tobago’. These lands were ceded to the British by the French following the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and Young was employed to raise funds through their sale. Young was a highly influential patron – he was later appointed Governor of Dominica in 1770 - and allowed Brunias to accompany him on his travels throughout the West Indies where he observed the local culture and customs. Brunias’s first works were undertaken in 1765 in Bridgetown and one of these paintings (now lost) was later reproduced as a popular print titled The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl in 1779.

This small, intimate work shows two finely dressed free people of colour conversing within a landscape accompanied by a young servant holding a parasol. Fort Young, which was built in 1770 and named after Brunias’s patron, is shown in the background. It is a typical example of the small-scale, multi-figured works depicting local Caribs of colour for which Brunias became known but can be distinguished by its excellent state of preservation.

The style of the two main subjects’ costumes and their elegant deportment tells us that they are prosperous, free people whereas the child holding the parasol takes on a subordinate role within the composition and is evidently a servant. Despite all being people of colour, Brunias emphasises the class boundaries between the local free-people and those of the population who held subservient roles in local households, distinguishable by their darker skin. This class divide on Dominica is more conspicuously explored in works such as Linen Market, Dominica and the painting of a West Indian man of colour, directing two Carib women with a child, both in the collection at the Yale Center for British Art and dateable to c.1780.[1] The present work was most likely conceived as part of a set which was then broken up when it was sold by the New York collector Dudley Wood at auction in 1977. A complete set was previously in the collection of William S. Reese and comprised of six works; four depicting free women of colour (some accompanied by servants), one showing five women bathing and a sixth showing a native family from the nearby island of St Vincent. The set does not follow a specific narrative and instead presents a series of individual romanticised scenes of local people within landscape settings.

The audience of these works were generally white Europeans and many of the prints produced by Brunias after his paintings were dedicated to prominent plantation owners who presumably patronised or supported the artist through other means. It has often been argued, therefore, that Brunias’s work presents a bias and idealised view of life in Dominica with little to no acknowledgement of the hardships experience by most of the indigenous population. His work has also been noted, however, for its importance in documenting the complex cultural and societal structures that emerged following the colonization of the islands of Dominica and St Vincent by French and later British settlers. His paintings record, for example, the important role clothing played as a signifier of social status and how European trends filtered through to the more prosperous population – mainly mixed-race men and women of French descent - who would try to outshine their peers with clothes made of silk and accessorised with buckled shoes, bracelets and rings of gold and silver.[2]

Although Brunias occupied a privileged position under the protection of the influential Sir William Young, as an Italian-born Roman Catholic he did not enjoy the same status as some of his English peers, and his social equivalents in Dominica and the nearby island of St Vincent were the free people of colour.[3] Whilst in Dominca Brunias married and started a family. His wife, whose name is not recorded, was, according to church records, a ‘free mulatto woman’ and they had at least two children together. Whilst in Dominica he lived in Roseau, and after almost a decade abroad he returned to England to promote and sell his work. He exhibited landscape and multi-figured works at the Royal Academy in 1777 and 1779 and published engravings of his West Indian paintings. Whilst in England, Dominica and St Vincent were captured by the French and Brunias was not able to return until 1784. He remained there until his death in 1796.

[1]Yale Center for British Art (B1981.25.76) & (B1981.25.80).

[2] Honychurch, L. (10 October 2003). "Chatoyer's Artist: Agostino Brunias and the depiction of St Vincent". Cave Hill, Barbados: The University of the West Indies. Accessed 23 April 2021 (https://archive.is/20121215053500/http://www.cavehill.uwi.edu/bnccde/svg/conference/papers/honychurch.html#selection-183.0-725.927)

[3] Honychurch, L. (10 October 2003). "Chatoyer's Artist: Agostino Brunias and the depiction of St Vincent". Cave Hill, Barbados: The University of the West Indies. Accessed 23 April 2021 (https://archive.is/20121215053500/http://www.cavehill.uwi.edu/bnccde/svg/conference/papers/honychurch.html#selection-183.0-725.927)

Receive information about exhibitions, news & events.

We will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.

Receive information about exhibitions, news & events.

We will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.
Close

Basket

No items found
Close

Your saved list

This list allows you to enquire about a group of works.
No items found
Close
Mailing list signup

Get exclusive updates from Philip Mould Gallery

Close

Sign up for updates

Make an Enquiry

Receive newsletters

In order to respond to your enquiry, we will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.

Close
Search
Close
500 Years of British Art