Miniature in Ivory

An American Studies seminar will explore Jews and race in the early Atlantic world.

Prof. Laura Leibman | July 4, 2020

Sarah Rodrigues Brandon began her life poor, Christian, and enslaved in late 18th century Barbados. Within 30 years, she had reached the pinnacle of New York’s wealthy Jewish elite. Like the Sephardic finishing school Sarah attended in London, this small watercolor on ivory miniature prepared Sarah to become the wife of a wealthy Atlantic-world Jew.

Ivory miniatures were frequently commissioned for engagements and weddings, but they also functioned as a portable tool in marriage negotiations. The portrait on ivory is the first—and only—glimpse we have of Sarah, and perhaps the most crucial evidence of how she wanted to be seen. The pearly color of Sarah’s skin is no accident. The “translucent, whitish tone of the ivory” was used to create light flesh tones. Sometimes a sheet of silver leaf was even placed behind ivory in order to enhance the glow of whiteness. Contemporary miniatures of women for whom the artists wanted to foreground African ancestry often used hatching (short lines of paint) to apply enough pigment to give the skin a dark tone. This left the sitter with a scratchy, rough appearance. In contrast, the painter of Sarah’s portrait uses the ivory to depict her skin as pearly and smooth. In Jews Across the Americas, a class that will be taught in spring 2021, students look at how portraits such as Sarah’s contributed to debates about Jews and race in the early Atlantic world.

Tags: Academics, Courses We’d Love To Take, Object of Study