Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849)

Isaac Mendes Belisario was the first documented Jamaican-born artist. He was active in Kingston around Emancipation and his work, in paint and in print, provides a rich document of life in Jamaica, seen from the perspective of the Sephardic merchant class to which he belonged. Belisario’s work is well represented in the NGJ Collection and on permanent view in our historical galleries. The following overview of his life and work is adapted from the catalogue of “Isaac Mendes Belisario: Art & Emancipation in Jamaica” (2008).


I.M. Belisario, Cocoa Walk Estate (c1840), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Biography

Isaac Mendes Belisario was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1795 into a Sephardic Jewish family of Spanish or Portuguese origin. The family had close ties to the Sephardic community in London. His grandfather, Isaac Mendes Belisario, after whom he was named, taught children at the Bevis Marks synagogue in London. The older Isaac’s son Abraham was sent to Jamaica in 1786 to work for Alexandre Lindo, a wealthy merchant, plantation owner, and slave factor. Five years later Abraham married Alexandre’s daughter Esther, and in 1803 Abraham, Esther and their six children – the younger Isaac, Caroline, Lydia, Hannah, Rose and Maria – moved to London.

Belisario trained as an artist under Robert Hills, the landscape watercolourist and drawing master. He exhibited landscapes between 1815 and 1818 but put aside his artistic endeavours in the 1820s, when he worked as a stockbroker. In 1831 Belisario showed a portrait at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Belisario returned to Kingston in about 1832 and remained there for at least fifteen years.  The island had a significant Jewish population in the 1830s, concentrated in Kingston and Spanish Town, and the majority worked in retailing, merchandising, and wholesaling. Belisario may have felt encouraged to return by the Jamaica Assembly’s passing in 1831 of the Jewish Emancipation Act, which gave Jamaican Jews full civil liberties at a time when the rights of Jews in Britain were still being negotiated.

The few works that survive from this period in Belisario’s career show him to have been a versatile artist, capable of working in different media and in a range of genres to cater to his clientele’s demands. In addition to his portrait practice, which was based oat 21 King Street, in downtown Kingston, Belisario painted estate portraits in oils and collaborated with the French printmaker Adolphe Duperly on various print projects. In 1837-1838 Belisario produced his best-known work, Sketches of Character, a series of twelve handcoloured lithographs, which may reflect his desire to produce work of wider appeal and more lasting significance.

The Jamaica to which Belisario returned was on the eve of making its troubled transition from apprenticeship to full emancipation, and his works provide a fascinating portrait of a colony undergoing – and resisting – radical transformation. He did not publicize his personal views, however, perhaps out of concern not to alienate his clients and community.

Belisario’s last documented Kingston work is a lithograph of 1846, and he died in London in 1849. Continue reading