“The Academy as Community: Leveraging Common Treatment to Expand Understanding and Audience”, an opening general session presentation written by Mark Aronson and Jessica David (and presented by Aronson), used the treatment of the painting, “A Young Girl with an Enslaved Servant and Dog” (ca.1725) by Bartholomew Dandridge in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art as the starting point for a discussion of the materials and techniques used to depict white and non-white people in the 18th century and the conservation treatments applied to those categories of figures. Before it was cleaned, the painting appeared to depict a specific young girl and a generic black slave.
The Yale Center for British Art is a resource for students in the Yale University School of Art, but it is also a free public institution visited by every third grader in the city of New Haven, many of whom are African American. The Center feels an obligation to consider how the British colonial works in its collection are presented to its audiences and has mounted a number of exhibitions beginning with “Art and Emancipation in Jamaica” ( September 27 – December 30, 2007) which consider their larger historic and social context. The curators for “Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture on Eighteenth Century Atlantic Britain” (October 2- December 14, 2014), another exhibition in the series decided to include the Dandridge painting which had been in storage for many years both because a thick yellow varnish and discolored overpaint made it difficult to see and because it was not in the grand later 18th century manner of portraiture favored by scholars during the 20th century. When the painting was examined before cleaning, it was found that the slave’s face had many more layers of overpaint than the girl’s face. However, because it had not been cleaned as many times as the girl’s face, it was in better condition and once cleaned, it became clear that this was the portrait of a specific individual.
Around the time that the Yale Center for British Art was beginning to grapple with the presentation of its colonial paintings, Titus Kaphar, then an MFA student at the Yale University School of Art, came to the Center’s conservators wanting to learn how to mix paints that could be used for black skin tones. British manuscripts and painting manuals were searched. Since the 15th century, painting manuals had recommended the use of vermillion when painting light colored skin, but no instructions on how to paint non-white skin tones were found in pre- 18th century manuals. Thomas Page’s “The Art of Painting in its Rudiment” (1720) was one of the earliest manuals to discuss darker skin tones.
When the Yale Center for British Art acquired a Macro XRF Scanner, a systematic analysis of the paintings in its collection was undertaken by Jessica David. In painting after painting, large quantities of vermilion were found to be present in lighter colored skin, while large quantities of earth pigments were present in dark skins. When the conservators at the Center had the opportunity to study the 17th century “Paston Treasure”, a painting from the Norwich Art Gallery (which was the centerpiece of the Center’s February- May 2018 exhibition ,”The Paston Treasure: A Painting Like No Other”), they found the same distribution of vermilion and earth tones in the flesh of its black and white figures, indicating that British painters shared a system for painting light and dark skin tones.