In 1819, artist Charles Wilson Peale painted one of the earliest known portraits of a black practicing Muslim. Peale was in town to do a painting of President James Monroe. The name of the man in Peale’s portrait was Yarrow Mamout, and he was an elderly freed slave living in Washington’s Georgetown area.
Peale was intrigued by Mamout’s life. While his age was up for confirmation, it was said that Mamout lived to be well over 120-130 years old. At the time of the painting, Mamout was about 112 years old. Peale was often paid to paint prestigious subjects like George Washington. This time, Peale’s painting would be free.
Peale was fascinated in Mamout’s belief that human beings could live to be well over 200 years old. He also wanted to paint an African-American in a more prosperous and admirable view, and the independent Yarrow Mamout fit the description.
Born in 1707, Mamout was captured in Africa and brought by slave ship to be sold in Maryland. After many years working as a brickmaker, Mamout’s owner promised him freedom if he worked hard to build his new house. Although the owner died before the home was completed, his widow set Mamout free. Mamout bought property and his own house. Those who knew him said that he was often seen openly praying to Allah and wearing his kufi in worship – which was brave and rare for the time period.
The historical painting by Peale was labeled incorrectly at first. When it was found without description, Mamout was automatically assumed to be Billy Lee, George Washington’s servant. Only after research was the true man in the oil painting revealed as Mamout.
The painting of Mamout was recently sold by the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although no numbers were being discussed openly, the painting is estimated to be worth approximately $1.5 million dollars.