The Man in the Knit Cap

By James H. Johnston
Sunday, February 5, 2006

In an era when it was rare to find any formal portrait of an African American, Yarrow Mamout was the subject of two early 19th-century artists. Why? A search for answers leads to a surprising destination

From a distance, the canvas portrait of Yarrow Mamout looked oddly modern. Something about the man's casual attitude and his enigmatic expression made me wonder why this painting of an ordinary-looking African American man with a stocking cap and smoking pipe was in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library. Then I got closer and read the date: 1822.

Now I was really puzzled. When I got home, I Googled Yarrow's name and found something even more astonishing: a portrait of this same man by none other than Charles Willson Peale, one of the most respected early American painters, a man who fought in the Revolution under George Washington and later painted celebrated portraits of Washington and other Founding Fathers. One explanation for Peale's interest in Yarrow was his belief that the former slave, who followed Muslim convention of putting his last name first, was well over 100 years old.

When I mentioned encountering two early 19th-century portraits of the same largely unknown black man to Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, she said any portrait of an African American from this period was rare.

Then I was hooked. I would spend the next three years tracking any lead I could find about who Yarrow Mamout was and why his legacy was committed to canvas nearly 200 years ago.

I soon learned that the canvas of Yarrow in the Peabody Room was painted by Georgetown artist James Alexander Simpson three years after Peale's portrait of Yarrow, which hangs at the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia.

The Peale portrait is famous in art history circles, and for good reason. Sidney Hart of the National Portrait Gallery and editor of the Peale Family Papers called Peale's painting "the most sensitive portrait in early America with an African American as the sitter."

Curiously, after Peale died, the subject of the unlabeled painting was identified as George Washington's personal servant, Billy Lee -- the only African American a limited imagination could conceive Peale would have seen fit to paint. The confusion lifted in 1948, when an art historian, looking through Peale's diary, figured out that the painting must be Yarrow Mamout, not Billy Lee.

Yarrow himself, though, has been largely ignored by history. The Georgetown library has a few manuscripts, clippings and books that mention him, but I had to sift through government records, manuscripts, books and newspapers, and take oral histories, to reconstruct his life and legacy in detail. I also needed a little help from friends -- and luck.

The earliest narrative mention of Yarrow is in a book titled A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia by David Warden. Published in Paris in 1816, the book was intended to describe the new capital of the United States to Europeans. In the course of writing about African Americans in Washington, Warden recounted what Gen. John Mason of Analostan Island (now Roosevelt Island) told him about Yarrow in an 1811 visit to Georgetown.

According to Mason, Yarrow had "toiled late and early, and in the course of a few years he had amassed a hundred dollars" on which to retire. He gave it to a merchant for safekeeping, but the entire sum was lost when the merchant died insolvent. Yarrow worried because he was no longer young and strong. Still, he went back to work, laboring for fixed wages by day, and weaving nets and baskets to sell by night. When he'd saved another $100, he gave the money to a different merchant with the same result: Yarrow lost his savings a second time when the merchant went bankrupt.

Going back to work a third time, Yarrow saved $200. This time, according to Warden:

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