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    The specter of slavery in the British Art Museum

    Thomas, Sarah (2022) The specter of slavery in the British Art Museum. American Art 36 (2), ISSN 1073-9300.

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    In Pieter Wonder’s oil painting, Patrons and Lovers of Art (1830), considered to be an idealised prefiguration of London’s National Gallery, we can identify sixteen British gentlemen collectors and connoisseurs, and forty-four Old Master and British paintings which are today considered collection highlights of major art museums across Europe and North America. This essay focuses on the lives of two of Wonder’s sitters in order to better understand how transatlantic slavery is deeply ingrained in Britain’s cultural past. The painting provides a useful springboard for considering the cultural legacies of slave-ownership, highlighting the myriad connections between the brutal system of colonial slavery and the world of aesthetics and taste, and encouraging reflection about a history that has for so long remained silent. In uncovering the sources of wealth which helped to facilitate the development and lavish display of such grand collections, it becomes possible to reconsider our understanding of the history of art collecting in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The essay argues that today art museums across Europe and North America are faced with an urgent moral imperative to acknowledge and better understand the extent of their debt to transatlantic slavery.


    Item Type: Article
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Historical Studies
    Research Centres and Institutes: Museum Cultures, Centre for
    Depositing User: Sarah Thomas
    Date Deposited: 08 Sep 2023 12:21
    Last Modified: 08 Sep 2023 12:22

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