Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849)
Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation, and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica
eleven handcoloured lithographs from the set of twelve, printed by A. Duperly and published Kingston, Jamaica, 1837-1838
(Abbey, Travel, 2, 685)
1434 x 10in. (37.5 x 25.4cm.) and similar
The plates (without letterpress) comprise: 'Queen of "Maam" of the Set-Girls'; 'Red Set-Girls, and Jack-in-the Green'; 'Jaw-Bone, or House John-Canoe'; 'Band of the Jaw-Bone John-Canoe'; 'Koo, Koo, Or Actor-Boy'; 'Koo, Koo, Or Actor-Boy'; 'French Set-Girls'; 'Lovey'; 'Water-Jar Sellers'; 'Milkwoman'; and 'Chimneysweeper'.

The first with printed inscription 'drawn after naturure' corrected in manuscript with the printed 'ure' crossed out and manuscript 'e' added above.

... faithful delineations of a people, whose habits, manners, and costume, bear the stamp of originality, and in which changes are being daily effected by the rapid strides of civilization; ...

'The series has had an important legacy. Belisario’s images were models for the revival of Jonkonnu in the 1950s, and they also played a role in the creation of a new national identity in the post-independence era.' (National Gallery of Jamaica)

Eleven of the twelve plates, missing the last plate of part 3, 'Creole Negroes', the ethnological plate which differs in subject from the previous illustrations of Belisario's 'Christmas Amusements' and 'Cries of Kingston'.

For a detailed discussion of the plates, see T. Barringer, G. Forrester, and B. Martinez-Ruiz, Art and Emancipation in Jamaica. Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds, New Haven and London, 2007, pp.426-41 (and for known surviving sets and loose plates, see p.428). Belisario's Sketches of Character remain extremely rare, with no recent auction sales of the set recorded. Five coloured plates (including a duplicate) were offered at Sotheby's New York, 7 May 2009, lot 154, and one damaged set of the twelve plates sold Sotheby's New York, 5 May 1981, lot 100. The set recorded in Abbey is now in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT.

Belisario was the first recorded Jamaican-born artist. Of Sephardic Jewish stock with Spanish and Portuguese origins, the family had close ties to the Sephardic community in London where they moved in 1803. Brought up in London, Isaac trained under Robert Hills, a landsape painter and drawing master, and painted landscapes between 1815 and 1818, before working as a stockbroker. He exhibited a portrait at the Royal Academy in 1831 and is thought to have returned to Jamaica in around 1832.

'After his return to Kingston from London in the early 1830s, Isaac Mendes Belisario seems to have focussed primarily on making commissioned portraits of local patrons and their properties ..., but the artist evidently had ambitions to create a work of wider appeal and more enduring significance. In September 1837 he published the first part of a series of lithographs entitled Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation, and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica. The first part consisted of four hand-colored lithographs accompanied by an extensive explanatory text. The series was sold by subscription, and Belisario printed a list of subscribers with the first part. Two more parts followed over the next few months, but despite Belisario's intention that there should be twelve parts in all, he abandoned the series after the third part was issued in 1838, presumably having depleted either his financial or creative resources, or both.

'Of the twelve published plates, seven are representations of figures from the masquerades that the formerly enslaved performed in Jamaica during the annual Christmas and New Year's holidays, and four depict examples of different occupations commonly seen in the streets of Kingston, groups that Belisario categorized respectively as the "Christmas Amusements" and the "Cries of Kingston"
'Small in size, and printed on fragile paper, these works are formidable in visual power and energy, and freighted with profound - though complex and ambiguous - historical significance. Enshrined in these works are many aspects of the history of Jamaica - a transatlantic history that was dominated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the actions of the British Empire and by the interests of the sugar industry and the slave trade, but that was also shaped by the complex cultures of the African diaspora and the resistance and agency of the enslaved. ...

'Belisario's return to Jamaica, which can be dated to late 1832 or 1833, came at a momentous time, during the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1831-32, or so-called Baptist War, and just as the colony was on the eve of making its troubled transition from slavery to apprenticeship. Belisario, as an "Atlantic creole, " ... was well situated to chronicle the colony at this anxious and transitional moment, and his works (their extremely limited survival itself underscoring the volatility of the times) provide a fascinating portrait of a colony negotiating radical transformation, the consequences of which could not be predicted.' (ibid., pp.1-65)

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