This small and vividly coloured oil painting shows a predominantly female group of figures dancing in an open area of bare, sandy ground before two solidly-built two-storey buildings and a hilly, richly vegetated landscape, surmounted on the right by further solid-looking buildings, a thatched hut and a windmill. The setting is intended as the Caribbean, probably St Vincent or Dominica where the Italian-born artist Agostino Brunias was largely based from c.1764 until his death in 1796. Although the early ownership history of this work is not known, Brunias created such idealised views of life in the sugar colonies of the British West Indies to sell to plantation landowners and colonial administrators, although he also published prints in London and Paris which made his images more widely known.
The painting is typical of Brunias’s work, in showing a mixture of men and women from African and mixed African and European descent engaged in leisure-time activities in a public space. The scene therefore includes figures who would have been expected by contemporary viewers to be slaves (the darker skinned men and women) intermingling with others of higher social status who might be free women of colour (the lighter–skinned women wearing more European-style costumes). The costumes of the figures also combine European and African elements (with turbans and headwraps in combination with corsets and shirts, and all the figures barefoot). Their dance appears to be a street dance on the move, accompanied by a small band moving with tambourines and triangles, perhaps the pre-Lent carnival traditionally known as a Masquerade or Mas’ which is still performed in Dominica.
The purported location of the scene portrayed in the present work can not, however, be confirmed. Brunias often grafted details, figures and even whole groups from one composition to another, even when they purported to represent different communities from separate islands. The present painting bears such a relationship to several extant prints and paintings by Brunias showing both St Vincent and Dominica. As with other images of life in the British West Indies by Brunias the major economic reason for colonisation and the creation of slave plantations in the Caribbean – the production of sugar and coffee – is not made explicitly visible (although the windmill and plantation buildings in the distance register that the land was being worked). Instead, we are treated to a scene of apparently free and independent leisure activity among the black and ‘mulatto’ population (the term ‘mulatto’ was used in the eighteenth century to describe men and women from mixed African and European descent). Brunias’s images of Caribbean life have been scrutinised closely as evidence of the complex and distorted European perspective on the slave plantations.
Beth Fowkes Tobin, Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting, Durham and London 1999, pp.139–73.
Kay Dian Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies 1700–1840, New Haven and London 2008, pp.37–71.
Mia L. Bagneris, Agostino Brunias: Capturing the Carribean [sic] (c.1770–1800), London 2010.