“The Girl with a Pearl Earring” is the star of the Vermeer exhibit currently visiting the de Young Museum in San Francisco, but while you are there, perhaps you may want to wander over to Gallery 23 on the upper gallery level. It is there that you will find an anonymous painting entitled “Robert, Calvin, Martha, and William Scott, and Mila.”
If you look closely, you will see the spire of New Orleans’ First Presbyterian Church on the skyline, where the children’s father, Rev. William Anderson Scott, was pastor. There are two other buildings that can be identified, the first, another center of New Orleans society, the St. Charles Hotel, and the second, what appears to be a slave cottage over Mila’s shoulder.
Emma Acker, Curator of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, has presented gallery visitors with a brief synopsis of Rev. Scott’s history, whose life might have amounted to little of current interest had it not been for three notable facts:
- Although a Presbyterian minister, Scott was a slave-owner. He may well have fit the mold of benevolent overseer so often cited by those who would put a kinder face on an indefensible institution – and his notes show clearly that Mila was spoken of as part of the family – yet it remains an indelible stain.
- Upon moving to San Francisco, Rev. Scott holds the distinction of being burned in effigy, not once – but twice.
- Rev. Scott was also one of the founders of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which exists to this day.
From Ms. Acker’s excellent summary, as well as from his more voluminous biographers such as Clifford Merrill Drury, we can gather a reasonably well-rounded picture of Rev. Scott, his principles and his prejudices. The family owned several slaves while living in New Orleans, a fact which belies the occasional handwringing and moralizing that characterized the public utterances of Scott and those who shared his choices. Trained at Princeton under the tutelage of the great Charles Hodge, Scott threw in with the “Old School” party when the Presbyterian Church was rent with division in 1837.
While theologically conservative, the “Old School” Presbyterians took what some would call a “two kingdoms” approach to slavery, arguing that such things were “civil” matters and should not concern the church. It was the curse of the “Old School” to be regularly on the right side of the theology and the wrong side of history.
Acker informs us that, “Scott did not believe the Presbyterian Church should condemn slavery. Consistent with the position taken by the Old School branch of Presbyterianism, Scott argued that the issue of slavery was political, rather than ecclesiastical, in nature, and was therefore outside the purview of the church. In an article he published in the July 1859 issue of the Pacific Expositor entitled ‘Mission of the Church,’ Scott applauded the Presbyterian Assembly’s decision not to endorse the abolitionist Colonization Society, arguing that ‘synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs.”
In 1884, having freed his slaves, Scott moved his family to San Francisco where he assumed the pastorate of the Calvary Presbyterian Church. It did not take him long to make his mark, for a short two years later a mob burned him in effigy for opposing the vigilante justice of the Committee of Vigilance.
Scott would earn the further distinction of being the only clergyman in California history to burned in effigy twice, the second time in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War, for alleged Confederate sympathies.
Perhaps, some have argued, the portrayal of Mila in this painting is the best evidence that the Scotts did, in fact, consider her family.
According to Michael Harris in “Colored Pictures,” the “mammy” caricatures of then-popular culture was “the opposite of idealized white womanhood. … She was large, dark-skinned, usually smiling and covered from neck to ankle with clothing. She wore a bandanna and apron, both of which signified that she was a worker doing cleaning, laundry or cooking. … These characteristics were iconic visualizations … meant to affirm her status as a servant and differentiate her from the white mistress.”
The head wrap became the ultimate “signifier of demeaned racial and social status.”
But Mila confronts the viewer with a direct, confident gaze – a marked contrast to the typically deferential expressions of slave subjects in 19th-century painting. Furthermore, she is not wearing the head wrap often found in depictions of African-American nursemaids of the period, but rather wears her hair in two elegant plaits, each encircled with a gold band.
When Vermeer’s hauntingly beautiful “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was restored in 1994, hers was once more the intensely direct and contemplative gaze that earlier generations may have witnessed. It is as though she is about to speak.
We long to know more about this girl, and about Mila, as well. If we were suddenly transported back to the place and time of this idyllic New Orleans scene, it is not to the society of the Rev. Scott that we should repair, for his opinions were, and are, commonplace. No, the interesting conversation would be with Mila, for it is through her eyes that we might more clearly see ourselves.