An Early Portrait Commissioned by an American Born Into Slavery Goes on View


mary cassell
James Alexander Simpson, “Portrait, probably of Mary Ann Tritt Cassell” (1839), promised gift on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art (photo by Mitro Hood, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art)

A little over a decade ago, Florida-based Dorita Sewell and her late mother Doris received a painting from a distant relative. An unsigned portrait of a fair-skinned woman with dark, curly hair, the artwork had been passed down over several generations of family members, who presumed the painting’s subject was an ancestor from the early 19th century. Over the next decade, the enigmatic painting sat wrapped in protective plastic in Sewell’s apartment space until one day, a little over a year ago, she came across a lecture by journalist James Johnston, who was going to be speaking about self-taught Georgetown portraitist James Alexander Simpson. 

“I thought, ‘Gee, maybe he could tell me something about my painting,” Sewell told Hyperallergic

Now, years of unanswered questions and unconfirmed theories have finally been put to rest, as the work prepares to go on public view for the first time today, June 26, at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). Attributed to Simpson by the BMA’s Curator of American Painting & Sculpture Virginia Anderson based on its style, the subject’s clothing, and portraiture conventions of the era, the painting has been determined to depict Mary Ann Tritt Cassell, a woman of mixed race who lived during the 1800s. Anderson told Hyperallergic that she also compared the painting to Simpson’s portrait of Mrs. Henry Lowe Mudd, which revealed striking similarities in their composition and brushwork, as well as a portrait in the Smithsonian’s collection that shares a similar date to Sewell’s painting.

While formal solo portraits of Black Americans were highly uncommon during this period, this work holds a unique historical significance as likely among the first known portraits commissioned by an American who was born into slavery.

Johnston, who recently published an article about his findings in the Washington Post, suspects that Cassell’s mother Henrietta Steptoe likely paid for the painting as a wedding portrait. Born in 1779 on the Stratford Hall plantation in Virginia, Steptoe lived roughly the first third of her life enslaved by the Lee family until she was freed in 1803. She then moved to Georgetown, where she joined a community of free Black Americans and worked as a midwife and nurse. In 1807, she gave birth to her daughter, Mary Ann.

In 1839, Mary Ann married William Cassell, a Black man from Baltimore who was an active member of the American Colonization Society, an organization that sought to transport free Black Americans back to Africa in order to prevent them from integrating with White society. In 1850, the Cassells moved to a Black American colony on the coast of Liberia, where they ultimately established permanent residency, leaving her portrait behind with her sister Rebecca.

“Mary Ann was this very talented woman,” Johnston told Hyperallergic. “Her mother broke out of slavery and her daughter got an education. She went off to Africa. She taught a school and ran a hospital in one generation from slavery.”

Mary Ann died on February 15, 1871. Before Rebecca died, she included a note in her 1877 will to bequeath a painting of her sister to her granddaughter, and from there, the work made its way down the family tree to Sewell and her mother, who died in 2016.

“There are only about five or six bequests in the will, so it’s clear that this was one of her valued possessions,” Johnston said, crediting researchers Carlton Fletcher and Jack Fallin for notifying him of the document when he was investigating the portrait’s provenance and history.

The work is also not the only painting by Simpson depicting a historically marginalized figure from American history. The artist also painted one of two known portraits of Yarrow Mamout, a formerly enslaved African-American Muslim man who lived in the same Georgetown community as Henrietta Steptoe. The work is currently on view in the Peabody Room of the DC public library’s Georgetown branch.

Sewell told Hyperallergic that she plans to eventually visit the painting at BMA now that it is on display. 

“Mom and I spent plenty of time there [at the museum],” she said, recalling her mother’s love of sketching and how in her childhood, she used to “drag her” to the National Gallery of Art to view the artwork on display.

“Now that it’ll be [at the BMA], I’m excited about it,” Sewell said. “I think it’s wonderful that we can all enjoy it and learn from it.”



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