Agostino Brunias

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Dominica Linen Market Agostino Brunias - Linen Market, Dominica - Google Art Project.jpg
Dominica Linen Market

Agostino Brunias (c. 1730 – 2 April 1796) was a London-based Italian painter from Rome. Strongly associated with West Indian art, he left England at the height of his career to chronicle Dominica and the neighboring islands of the Lesser Antilles.


Early years

Brunias was born in Rome c. 1730; [1] the exact date is uncertain. His first name has been spelled in various ways including Abraham, Alexander, August, or Austin, while his surname has been recorded as Brunais and Brunyas. [2]

Brunias was a student at the Accademia di San Luca, Rome. In 1752, he exhibited an oil painting, [3] and in 1754 he won Third Prize in the Second Class for painting. [4]


An engraving after an oil painting of Agostino Brunias titled Barbados Mulatto Girl. The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl.jpg
An engraving after an oil painting of Agostino Brunias titled Barbados Mulatto Girl.

After Brunias met the Scottish architect Robert Adam, who was on a Grand Tour of Europe, he studied the "magnificent ruins of Italy" between 1756 and 1758. He became employed as a draughtsman by Adam, joining him in England in 1758, and painted for many of Adam's elegant buildings in England. Adam, praising his works, called Brunias a "bred painter". His murals and paintings covered the interior walls of many stately homes. [1] [2] [3] Surviving examples of Brunias' early work include five paintings in the classical style (1759-1760), which were commissioned to decorate the breakfast room at Kedleston Hall, now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. [5] By 1762, Brunias was residing in Broad Street, Carnaby Market, London [3] and in 1763 and 1764, he exhibited at the Free Society of Artists in London. [2]

At the end of 1764, Brunias left London for the British West Indies under the employ of Sir William Young, 1st Baronet. Young was at that time President of the Commission for the Sale of Ceded Lands in Dominica, Saint Vincent, Grenada and Tobago, following the Treaty of Paris. In 1768 Young was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Dominica, and then in 1770 was appointed Governor of Dominica, then one of Britain's newest colonies in the Lesser Antilles.

Brunias accompanied Young on his travels through the West Indies, providing him with subject matter including indigenous Carib life and evolving 18th-century creole cultures. His first sketches of the West Indies were done in Bridgetown in 1765, one of which was turned into a popular engraving titled "Barbados Mulatto Girl." Following Sir William Young, Brunias settled in settled in Dominica's capital, Roseau. [1] From the West Indies, Brunias submitted two drawings to the Society of Artists' exhibition of 1770 in London. [2] [6]

Brunias returned to England around 1773 or 1775. In 1777 and 1779, three of his West Indian paintings were shown at the Royal Academy. [7] He followed this accomplishment by publishing engravings of his West Indian paintings, some of which were "by his own hand. [8] [7] [2] During this time he created wall paintings of "Caribbean aborigines" for the Ante Library at Stowe House. [1]

During Brunias' absence from the West Indies, Dominica and St. Vincent were occupied by the French; Britain did not regain the colonies until the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1783. Brunias was finally able to return to Dominica in 1784, and remained there until his death on the island of Dominica in 1796. [1]

During the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s, Toussaint Louverture, liberator of Haiti and one of Brunias' supporters, wore eighteen buttons on his waistcoat which were each decorated with a different hand-painted miniature reproduction of Brunias' West Indian scenes. [9] [10]

Engravings of his designs continued to be published posthumously. Harvard University's Fogg Museum, Yale Center for British Art and Tate (London) own examples of his works. [2] His work has also been acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, [11] Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, [12] and The Brooklyn Museum. [13]


Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape, ca. 1770-1796. Brooklyn Museum. Agostino Brunias - Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape - Google Art Project.jpg
Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape, ca. 1770-1796. Brooklyn Museum.

In 1808, artist and critic Edward Edwards summarized Brunias body of work as consisting of "decorative subjects for panels and ceilings, both in colours and chiaroscuro," and of West Indian subject matter. [8] He was particularly adept at painting 'Negro festivals', dances, markets, and other related cultural traditions and producing paintings showing interaction between indigenous Caribs and colonial settlers.

Brunias in his collected works is shown to be predominantly a figure painter, with strong classical influences. Although he occasionally painted landscapes and other subject matter, classical figures are repeated in his early work as well as his West Indian pieces. [15]

Although Brunias was initially commissioned to depict upper-class plantation life, his works assumed what was considered to be a subversive political role in the Caribbean, endorsing a free, anti-slavery society, and exposing the artificiality of racial hierarchies in the West Indies. His paintings of Dominica, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, and Barbados provide a valuable insight into life on these islands during the colonial period. One of his works, Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape (c. 1764–96), an oil painting on canvas, depicts colonial women of color as privileged and prosperous, and is now in the Brooklyn Museum. It depicts the influence of the diverse European, Caribbean, and African cultures prevalent in the 18th century Caribbean. [9]

At the same time, several critics have argued that Brunias' images of communities of color romanticized and obscured the realities of colonial domination and plantation slavery. [15] [3] [1]

Personal life

Born in Italy and achieving success in England, Agostino Brunias spent more than twenty-five years in the Caribbean, where he primarily resided in Dominica. He is also known to have lived in St. Vincent, and he spent time on Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts, and Tobago.

He started a family in Dominica around 1774, shortly before he returned to England, and was then separated from them by war. From church records it seems that his children's mother was a "free mulatto woman" and they had at least two children. After being reunited with his family after nearly ten years, he remained with them in Roseau until his death. [1]

He died on 2 April 1796 at the age of 66, and was buried in the Catholic cemetery on the site of the present-day Roseau Cathedral. [3]

Related Research Articles

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Honychurch, Lennox (October 10, 2003). "Chatoyer's Artist: Agostino Brunias and the depiction of St Vincent". Cave Hill, Barbados: The University of the West Indies. Archived from the original on December 15, 2012. Retrieved 25 June 2011.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Sutton, Peter C. "Agostino Brunias c. 1730 – Dominica, c. 1796". Madrid, Spain: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Archived from the original on 10 June 2011. Retrieved 23 June 2011.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Meeks, Brian; Lindahl, Folke (2001). New Caribbean thought: a reader. University of the West Indies Press. pp. 250–. ISBN   978-976-640-103-0 . Retrieved 23 June 2011.
  4. Fleming, John (1962). Robert Adam and his circle, in Edinburgh & Rome. Harvard University Press. p. 360. Retrieved 23 June 2011.
  5. Brunias, Agostino (1759–1760). "Decorative painting for Kedleston Hall". Victoria and Albert Museum Collections. Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  6. Edwards, Edward (1808). ""Augustine Brunias"". Anecdotes of painters who have resided or been born in England; with critical remarks on their productions. London: Leigh and Sotheby. p. 65-66.
  7. 1 2 Nussbaum, Felicity A (13 July 2005). The Global Eighteenth Century. JHU Press. pp. 351–. ISBN   978-0-8018-8269-2 . Retrieved 24 June 2011.
  8. 1 2 Edwards, Edward (1808). ""Augustine Brunias"". Anecdotes of painters who have resided or been born in England; with critical remarks on their productions. London: Leigh and Sotheby. p. 65-66.
  9. 1 2 "Brooklyn Museum Acquires 18th Century Painting by Agostino Brunias Depicting Colonial Elite". Art Daily. Brooklyn, New York . Retrieved 17 August 2020.
  10. Geracimos, Anne (January 2000). "A Mystery in Miniature: An enigmatic button once decorated the uniform of Haitian liberator Toussaint Louverture". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  15. 1 2 Bagneris, Mia L. "Project Description Local Colors: Interracial Sexuality and the Mixed-Race Body in the Caribbean Canvases of Agostino Brunias". Cambridge, Massachusetts: WEB du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University. Archived from the original on 30 April 2011. Retrieved 25 June 2011.
  24. "Market Day, Roseau, Dominica". Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  28. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. "Button (Haiti)". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  29. Brunias, Agostino. "A Negro Festival, drawn from Nature in the Island of St Vincent/ from an original picture by Agostino Brunais, in the possession of Sir William Young Bart F.R.S'". National Maritime Museum. Greenwich, London: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Michael Graham-Stewart Slavery Collection.