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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

America’s Peculiar Institution

The paintings on view in the Worcester Art Museum’s American portrait galleries celebrate a story of mercantile exchange, rational thought, and military prowess. As with most portraits, however, these paintings depict the sitters as they wish to be seen—their best selves—rather than simply recording appearance. The sitters are shown in poses and with objects intended to articulate their social status, such as the fine fabrics and coral beads in the portraits of John, Elizabeth, and Mary Freake.

At his death, John Freake’s estate included partial ownership of six ships, significant holdings of land, and “one Negroe named Coffee,” who was valued at £30. (Source: Inventory of the estate of John Freake, 24th day, 7th month, 1675, Suffolk County Probate, Boston, miscellaneous docket, V, 294–96.)

Yet a great deal of information is effaced in works such as these, including the sitters’ reliance on chattel slavery, often referred to as America’s “peculiar institution.” The Freakes, like many other wealthy American citizens, supported their way of life through this system of violence and oppression, which was legal in Massachusetts until 1783 and in regions of the United States until 1865. This tragic history has long been overlooked in our galleries—to address this omission, the Museum has added special labels to indicate different portrait sitters’ participation in slavery.

- Elizabeth Athens, Assistant Curator of American Art

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