In the Galleries: Robert, Calvin, Martha, and William Scott and Mila (ca. 1843–1845)

Robert, Calvin, Martha, and William Scott and Mila, ca. 1843–1845

Regulars to the permanent galleries at the de Young will notice a new addition to Gallery 23 on the upper gallery level—the anonymous painting titled Robert, Calvin, Martha, and William Scott and Mila, ca. 1843–1845. The painting depicts the children of Reverend William Anderson Scott (1813–1885), a Presbyterian minister in New Orleans from 1842 to 1854. The spire of the First Presbyterian Church where Dr. Scott was pastor is visible at the center of the city’s skyline.

Mila

Scott family papers suggest that the African American woman at the right is Mila, who was enslaved by the family. The portrayal of Mila is, by standards of the period, a realistic and sympathetic rendering of an African American subject. However, her status in the household is emphasized by her kneeling and by the inclusion of a slave cabin behind her. In the 1840s, the legality and morality of slavery were being challenged in the North and defended in the South. This group portrait may reflect Reverend Scott’s attempt to portray both his family and slavery in a positive light.

Dr. Scott later moved his family to San Francisco, where he had the rare distinction of being hanged in effigy not once but twice: first in 1856 for opposing the law of San Francisco's notorious Committee of Vigilance, and again in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War for his Confederate sympathies.

Surviving the turmoil of the Civil War unscathed, Dr. Scott went on to help found the San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1871. The seminary campus is currently located in the Marin County town of San Anselmo.

Read more about this fascinating work of art in the article "Black, White, and Shades of Gray" (PDF 104KB), written by FAMSF curatorial assistant Emma Acker for the Fall 2009 issue of Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity.