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The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present an extremely rare pair of portraits of African American sitters whose heritage can be traced back to the city’s first mayor, Humphrey Morrey (b. c. 1650, England; d. 1716, Philadelphia), appointed to his office by William Penn in 1691. The portraits were painted in 1841 and depict Hiram Charles Montier (1818–1905), who was a bootmaker on N.W. 7th Street at the time of the painting, and his wife Elizabeth Brown Montier (1820–ca. 1858) whom family records indicate had lived in the city’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. The portraits are owned by their descendents, Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens, III of New York, and have never before been publicly exhibited. They are on a long-term loan to the Museum.
Living in Philadelphia, the Montiers were members of one of the largest free African American communities in the North although Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation law of 1780 permitted slavery well into the 19th century. Hiram Montier’s direct ancestors were Richard Morrey, the son of Mayor Morrey, and Cremona Morrey, an African American woman with whom he lived openly in Cheltenham during the early 18th century. The couple eventually had five children and in 1746, shortly before his own death, Richard gave Cremona 198 acres of family land.
“We are thrilled to be able to represent in our American galleries these exceptional paintings that document Philadelphia’s early African American community. The Montier portraits present a wonderful opportunity to learn about Philadelphia’s diverse past and specifically about African American life here during the mid-19th century,” said Alice Beamesderfer, Interim Head of Curatorial Affairs.
“The Montier family’s connection to one of the first families of Philadelphia makes these portraits all the more significant,” Mark Mitchell, Assistant Curator and Manager, Center for American Art, added. The signature “Fr Street” on the reverse (now concealed by lining) of Elizabeth’s portrait corresponds to an artist named Franklin R. Street who was active in Philadelphia between 1839 and 1872. No other works by the artist are recorded and no contemporary exhibition records for him have been found, though he was listed in city directories and census records; he was likely a professional painter, producing commercial signs and fancy work as well as portraits. The paintings nevertheless adopt the conventions of high-style portraiture, including the elegant attire, grand architecture, and dramatic landscapes that characterize the works of Philadelphia masters such as Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully. At the time of these paintings, Franklin Street’s studio was located at 41 Chestnut Street.
The portraits will be installed in gallery 101, the entrance to the American Art galleries, along with the Museum’s Dave Jar (1859), a masterwork of craftsmanship in stoneware by David Drake, an enslaved African American. Also in this gallery are Penn's Treaty with the Indians, (c. 1830-1835), an oil on canvas by Edward Hicks and portraits of Lapowinsa and Tishcohan, chiefs of the Lenape Tribe painted by artist Gustavus Hesselius (b. 1682, Sweden; d. 1785, Philadelphia) who was America's earliest portrait painter of note.