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).
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.
Sketches of Character
In September 1837, Belisario published the first part of a series of lithographic prints entitled Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation, and Costume of the Negro Population in the Island of Jamaica. The first part consisted of four hand-coloured lithographs accompanied by an extensive explanatory text, known as letterpress. The series was sold by subscription, and Belisario printed a list of subscribers with the first part. Two more parts followed over the next few months, but despite Belisario’s intention that there should be twelve parts in all, he abandoned the series after the third part of was issued in 1838, likely having exhausted either his financial or creative resources, or both.
Of the twelve published plates, seven are images of figures from the masquerades that the formerly enslaved performed in Jamaica during the annual Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and four depict examples of the different occupations frequently seen in the streets of Kingston. Belisario described these two groups of images as the “Christmas Amusements” and the “Cries of Kingston.” Belisario’s prints were the first visual representations both of the masquerades and of Jamaican occupational types, and Sketches of Character was a landmark event for both Jamaican and British print publishing.
The Christmas Amusements depict three separate, though overlapping, performance forms: the Sets, the Actor Boys, and Jonkonnu (usually referred to by whites during the colonial period in its anglicized form of John Canoe). Originating in African masquerade and religious practice, these forms underwent a process of creolization, incorporating elements of European theater and masquerade imported to Jamaica by immigrants. Masquerade was a controlled outlet for the enslaved, who endured an everyday existence of grinding monotony and brutality. The notion of the “world turned upside down,” parody, and masking are central to masquerade, raising troubling questions regarding social hierarchies, power relations, and personal identity, and the holiday period was a time of anxiety for planters and ruling elites, who feared that carnival would spill over into violence and revolt. There were, in fact, active efforts to suppress Jonkonnu in the post-emancipation period and it is only in the mid 20th century that this masquerade tradition was recognized as a legitimate part of Jamaica’s cultural heritage.
The series has had an important legacy. Belisario’s images were models for the revival of Jonkonnu in the 1950s, and they also played a role in the creation of a new national identity in the post-independence era.
Belisario as a Landscape Painter
Belisario is remembered mainly as a watercolourist and lithographer, but he was also active as a landscape painter in oils whose works chronicle Jamaican plantation life and labour at a moment of profound transformation. He was perhaps the last exponent of the picturesque estate landscape in Jamaica.
A group of oil paintings and a related watercolour, all depicting estates belonging to the Marquess of Sligo (then Governor of Jamaica), explores the question of labour on the plantation in the transition from apprenticeship to freedom. They might specifically represent the estates under the management of Alexandre Bravo, who took them over as a manager in 1838.
Belisario’s paintings seem to offer an idyllic vision of free labour willingly performed in an open market, resulting in economic prosperity and social calm – the desired outcome of Sligo’s reforms. Other sources however record that the years after full emancipation saw the collapse of sugar production and agriculture on marginal lands such as Sligo’s plantations at Cocoa Walk and Kelly’s Estate. Only with the breaking up of the estates in a “ruinate” condition did the former apprentices finally have a chance to purchase and cultivate their own land.
Barringer, Tim, Gillian Forrester, and Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, eds. Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art & Yale University Press, 2007.
Boxer, David et al. Isaac Mendes Belisario: Art & Emancipation in Jamaica. Kingston: National Gallery of Jamaica, 2008.
Ranston, Jackie. Belisario: Sketches of Character. Kingston: Mill Press, 2008.