'The Black Boy', William Windus, about 1844
Artist: William Windus (1822-1907)
Oil on canvas
76.1 x 63.5cm
Accession Number WAG 1601
This painting could be read as an example of how European artists sometimes treated black people as picturesque subject matter. However, it can also, perhaps more convincingly, be seen as a straightforward realistic portrait.
Windus was born in Liverpool and trained at the Liverpool Academy Schools. This poor boy dressed in rags is traditionally associated with a touching story with a suitably happy ending. He is said to have crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway and been found by Windus on the steps of the Monument Hotel in Liverpool.
Windus is then supposed to have employed him as an errand boy. This painting was put in the window of a frame-maker's shop.
A sailor relative of the boy saw it, found the boy and took him back to his parents. It is unknown whether this story is true or not.
Windus' image of picturesque poverty would have had a strong appeal in Victorian England. It is also, however, a strikingly direct picture of a boy, shown in a matter-of-fact pose. It does not have any 'humorous' props or symbolic details that often accompanied images of black people from the time suggesting lowly status or social inferiority. It is simply an image of a poor boy, similar in style to many other images of the 'lower classes' produced at this time.