The Portraits

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Benjamin Lay

Artist
William Williams, Sr., 1727 - 27 Apr 1791
Sitter
Benjamin Lay, c. 1681 - 3 Feb 1759
Date
c. 1750-1758
Type
Painting
Medium
Oil on mahogany panel
Dimensions
Panel: 37.8 x 36.2 x 3.8cm (14 7/8 x 14 1/4 x 1 1/2")
Frame: 54.3 x 51.4 x 5.1cm (21 3/8 x 20 1/4 x 2")
Credit Line
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; this acquisition was made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society
Object number
NPG.79.171
Exhibition Label
Born Colchester, England
Quaker reformer Benjamin Lay was a key figure in the emerging antislavery movement prior to the Revolutionary War. Having witnessed slavery's horrors while working as a merchant in Barbados, Lay dedicated himself to the abolitionist cause. He was forced, however, to leave this Caribbean island in 1731 in the wake of intensifying hostility by local slave owners. Settling in Philadelphia, he resumed his campaign, writing pamphlets and speaking out at Quaker meetings. His efforts ultimately compelled the Philadelphia Society of Friends in 1758 to pass a resolve expelling those members who owned slaves.
This portrait of the diminutive activist was commissioned by Benjamin Franklin, whose printing shop had published one of Lay's most stinging abolitionist tracts. Here, Lay stands before the cavelike dwelling in which he and his wife lived and holds a treatise "on happiness" by English Quaker philosopher Thomas Tryon.
Data Source
National Portrait Gallery
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National Portrait Gallery Collection