In this disarming three-quarter portrait, the hulking figure of John Punch seemingly sways to the left against a black background. He is clad in a bulky tunic with an upright white collar that offsets the intense blackness of his face. His arms are pulled behind his back, indicating that he is not a free man, yet he confronts the viewer with a stare emanating from narrowed eyes. An errant lock of hair pulls to the far left of the frame. A red band runs across the top of the painting—the sole injection of bright color in this dark picture.
Punch is regarded as the first African to spend his life in servitude in the United States. The date included in the title of the painting, 1646, represents the year that he was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery by a State court. Punch is one of several historical black figures that the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall has memorialized as part of a larger effort to break up the supremacy of white figures on the walls of art museums. For Marshall, the fact that museums are dominated by portraits, history paintings and genre scenes picturing white people is evidence that painting is hardly a finished, outmoded media.
In addition to his critique of the over-representation of white subjects, Marshall uses paintings like this to highlight other ways that the revered styles and schools of the Western art canon have privileged whiteness For instance, Marshall takes on Malevich’s white on white Suprematist Painting, proving that black paint has just as much potential for finely hewn gradations. In the Punch portrait, black skin is distinct from black hair which is distinct from a black background. Marshall’s body of work not only infuses the canon of Western art with a much needed constituency of blackness, it also challenges the assumption that whiteness is the norm rather than another racial category.