Looking closely at the Portrait of Elizabeth Brown Montier, a portrait of a free Black woman from 1840.
When you explore PMA’s Early American Art galleries, you’ll come across a rare portrait of a free Black woman created in Philadelphia before the American Civil War. Painted in December 1840 by Franklin R. Street (around 1816–1882), Portrait of Elizabeth Brown Montier (around 1822–1852; figure 1) is currently displayed to the right of a slightly larger portrait of her husband, Hiram Montier (around 1818–1905; figure 2). Finished before their wedding, perhaps as a present to her groom, Elizabeth’s portrait reveals both the standing and ambitions of a young free Black woman navigating the antebellum United States.
In the portrait, she sits with her left elbow on the arm of a carved wooden chair placed before rich emerald and scarlet drapes that cast their shadows upon a neoclassical column, separating the serene space in which our sitter resides from a lush and volatile landscape. Elizabeth wears a billowy ivory gown featuring a wide, lace-trimmed neckline and long, puffy sleeves accented with layered ruffles and cinched wrists. Adorned with gold jewelry, she holds in her right hand a little book, and in her left she grasps the end of a long silk sash with a delicate rose color that brings out the slight flush in her cheeks. Framed by full, arched brows, her large brown eyes engage us.
Her gaze, a potential window into her soul, leads me to wonder, just who was Elizabeth Brown Montier?
As many a Black scholar has lamented, it remains difficult to locate documents detailing the intimate thoughts, hopes, and dreams of Black women during the era of slavery. Because in many states and territories it became illegal to teach Black people to read and write, few writings by free, freed, or enslaved Black women from the era of slavery exist today.
What little survives—say the poetry of Phillis Wheatley (figure 3) or the narrative of Harriet Jacobs—offers us but a glance into the psyche of a few women, and is far from comprehensive. Furthermore, the official records that make up the archives are both patriarchal and racially prejudicial in nature and thus rarely recorded the words of Black women. For example, in many states, Black people were not permitted to testify in courts of law, and early census records list data for entire families under the name of their patriarch.
What little we know about Elizabeth Brown Montier comes from a single line in an 1850 census and a burial notice dated two years later. The census notes that Elizabeth—a mother of two boys at the time: Adrian (born 1842) and Joseph (born 1848)—was born around 1822 in Maryland, making her about 18 in December 1840 when she sat for Street, and just 30 years young when she passed away in 1852.1 With no birth certificate, baptismal, or manumission records yet located, her life before she met and married Hiram Montier remains a mystery.2
However, as art historian and curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw noted in the catalog for “Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century,”
Images of the self provide precious information about the status and aspirations of their sitters, their place within the dominant hierarchy, and their anticipated or imagined potential for movement beyond it.3
Portraits, according to Shaw, operate as purveyors of knowledge about African American history. Thus, information can be gleaned from Elizabeth’s portrait that is not readily available to us via spotty archival sources. So, let’s take another look at the painting in order to enrich our understanding of a woman about whom very little is known.
In the portrait of Elizabeth, Franklin R. Street employed a mixture of real and imagined elements to capture the character of his young sitter and commemorate an important life event. While there is no way of knowing which items Elizabeth owned and which Street imagined for her, I would like to cautiously speculate that what Elizabeth touches, she possessed. This would include her jewelry, sash, book, and dress. Whether or not this is true, what she did not own was borrowed or imagined with a purpose. For example, the settee upon which Elizabeth rests her elbow may have been a prop from the painter’s studio; the floral motif carved into its arm could signify the young bride’s purity and fertility—a woman’s pride and promise, so to speak, at this time. Meanwhile, Franklin Street likely fabricated the dramatic drapery and classical columns behind Elizabeth as references to antiquity, a visual culture tradition that dates to old aristocratic portraiture in England that Americans adopted to manifest their high-class aspirations.
Street likewise invented the turbulent weather in the distance. Featuring sunlight cutting through dark storm clouds, it could signify the beginning of brighter days ahead. It is worth noting that in the U.S. the 1830s saw a marked increase in violence enacted against free Black residents, especially those of means, such as the Montiers.4 Angry mobs attacked prominent Black citizens in the streets and set fire to Black churches and residences. It’s possible that Elizabeth hoped that her marriage would mark a new period of peace and prosperity. Overall, the portrait’s setting positions Elizabeth as a young woman with means, character, and potential.
Meanwhile, her possessions potentially reveal her sentiments, tastes, and accomplishments. Street took time to render Elizabeth’s jewelry with enough detail that the pieces stand out as unique, signifying that her rings and necklace were likely real items brought to the studio. The top ring featured on her right hand appears to have a floral form. The repeated presence of floral patterns in the young bride’s portrait would have further emphasized her feminine qualities and virtues.
Her necklace appears to be composed of two overlapping charms, a heart and a cross. The position of the heart overlapping the upper section of the cross is almost an inverted reference to the Catholic Sacred Heart (figure 4); however, the heart’s position in relation to the plain cross also recalls the Egyptian ankh symbol (figure 5). Often referred to as the Key of Life or Key of the Nile, the ankh is an ancient form—from which it is said the form of the cross derived—that signifies eternal life. In Elizabeth’s necklace the top of the “key,” normally an upside-down teardrop shape, has been replaced with a heart tilted slightly off-center.
Could it be that the positioning of Elizabeth’s necklace fuses African and Christian symbolism to convey eternal love and devotion for her groom? This possibility becomes all the more attractive when one considers that Elizabeth was to marry a young man presumed to be of Haitian descent via his patriarchal line. Vodou, the prominent religion of formerly enslaved Black Haitians at the time, was an amalgamation of different African religions that often utilized Catholic iconography to conceal African (and Indigenous) spiritual emblems. Of course, it’s also possible that Elizabeth simply found the heart-shaped emblem endearing but given that so much of this portrait adheres to European and white American standards of beauty and respectability, it is tempting to search for African-rooted influences and symbolism. Regardless, the necklace Elizabeth wears represents a unique and charming addition to her portrait that speaks to the young lady’s sentiments (figure 6).
Figure 6. Necklace detail, “Portrait of Elizabeth Brown Montier (c. 1822–1852),” 1840 by Franklin R. Street. Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches. On loan from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens, III, 192-2022-2.
Likewise, her dress, an elegant ivory ensemble, tells us that Elizabeth kept up with the latest fashion trends coming out of Europe, as the design mimics the dress worn by Queen Victoria (figure 7) at her wedding to Prince Albert earlier that year5. A similar dress (figure 8) in the museum’s collection worn as a wedding dress in Philadelphia in 1841 speaks to the popularity of this style in the region.
Finally, the book held in Elizabeth’s right hand tells us that in addition to being affluent, sweet, and fashionable, she was also literate. In many states it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write, as enslavers understood how dangerous access to information could be. Thus, education remained especially important for free Black individuals as a marker of, or even route to, freedom. Demonstrating one’s wealth of knowledge clearly informed Hiram’s portrait, in which the young bootmaker chose to be depicted with the Holy Bible and a book titled History of the World, along with two unlabeled books, possibly a business ledger and personal journal—each item indicating aspects of a well-rounded education.
Literacy was found highlighted in other early portraits featuring African American sitters, as seen in William Matthew Prior’s 1843 portrait Mrs. Nancy Lawson (figure 9).
Seated before a window covered in scarlet drapery, Nancy Lawson wears a conservative dark green dress with a white embroidered collar and bonnet. She holds in her right hand a small leather-bound volume, possibly a prayer book, into which she’s placed her thumb, as if holding her spot so that she can return to her studies after engaging us for a brief moment. Nancy Lawson’s and Elizabeth Brown’s portraits document the significance of education—as precious as the portraits that depict them.
Knowing all the challenges Elizabeth faced as a young Black and interracial woman, the fact that she was able to commission her portrait and that it survives is remarkable. While a number of questions remain to be answered, this portrait of the soon-to-be Mrs. Elizabeth Brown Montier reveals a great deal about the youthful ambitions of a free Black woman, who was living—and seemingly thriving—in Philadelphia during the pre–Civil War era.
Lucia Olubunmi R. Momoh is a curator, writer, and scholar currently serving as the Constance E. Clayton Curatorial Fellow in American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her curatorial practice supports and engages with historical and contemporary artists and works that reveal the complex realities of and urgent threats to life and love on Earth. Centering African Diasporic perspectives in Western art history and cultural institutions, Momoh’s research and writing investigates constructs of race and formations of national and imperial identities in the Americas during the nineteenth century, how museums uphold these ideologies, and the potential for art to dismantle them.
 “Elizabeth A. Montier,” in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates Index, 1803–1915. Accessed via Ancestry.com on August 11, 2022.
Manumission was the process by which enslaved people purchased or were granted their freedom. Had Elizabeth been born into slavery, this record would tell us how she was freed. It is possible that, like her husband, Elizabeth had been born free. In which case, she would have carried freedom papers to prevent her capture or imprisonment. Other records, such as a baptismal record, would, in addition to granting us her status at birth, would likely provide us with the names of her mother and father as well as her godparents, and thus give us a sense of who made up her community.
 Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw and Emily K. Shubert, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century (Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art in association with University of Washington Press, 2006), 27.
 For more information on the rise of race-based violence in the 1830s, see Emma Jones Lapsansky, “ ‘Since They Got Those Separate Churches’: Afro-Americans and Racism in Jacksonian Philadelphia,” American Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1980), 54–78.
 Prior to Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840, most women simply wore their best dress, of any color at their wedding. However, Victoria’s wedding dress—a voluminous ivory-colored gown with a corset bodice featuring a neckline amply trimmed with lace—ignited the tradition of brides wearing white (or in this case more of a creamy ivory) on their wedding day. Not necessarily associated with purity at that time, white fabric demonstrated the affluence of the wearer, as it remains notoriously difficult and expensive to keep clean. Meanwhile, in their time, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were thought to embody the ideal of domestic bliss, thus many sought to emulate their actions and tastes. For more information on the evolution of the tradition of the wedding dress across time and place, see Summer Brennan, “A Natural History of the Wedding Dress,” JStor Daily, published September 27, 2017.
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