[19th Century American Prison Art, possibly of African-American Slaves or Sharecroppers, by an Acrobat and Contortionist Incarcerated for Murder].
Prison art by an incarcerated, murderous former acrobat and contortionist
Italian-American Achille Onofri, was an acrobat and contortionist who had met trapeze artist Millie Cook in Havana, married her, and then moved to Philadelphia with her and her 9-year-old daughter, Lottie.
On May 11, 1886, Onofri was teaching Lottie to walk the tightrope, but she was unable to do it. Apparently, in a fit of anger, he beat her viciously, and she died within a few hours. After his trial and conviction for second degree murder, Onofri was sentenced to twelve years in Pennsylvania’s infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (e.g., see the May 30, 1885 issue of The New York Times for additional details of Onofri’s crime.) According to contemporary notes on the verso, he executed this painting in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, likely during pre-sentencing.
Onofri’s painting is a pastoral, idealized scene of individuals, possibly African-American slaves or sharecroppers, seen in front of a row of wooden cabin-like houses or quarters. Men and women converse at leisure in the foreground. In the background, individuals are seen working.¹ Handwritten notes on the verso provide provenance and other details (in full):
Painted by Achille Onofri, At Moyamensing Prison, June 6, 1886. He was charged with murder and found guilty of Murder in the 2nd Degree May 8th 1886 – and sentenced to 12 years in the Eastern [crossed out word] Penitentiary. B.F. Butcher, Physician. Property of C.G. Barnard, Keeper. Phila., Penna.
An unusual example of nineteenth-century American prison art, unambiguously identifiable as such, its creator unambiguously identified.
Description: [19th Century American Prison Art, possibly of African-American Slaves or Sharecroppers, by an Acrobat and Contortionist Incarcerated for Murder].
[Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia, 1886]. Watercolor on paper, mounted to cardboard backing. Painting: 7¾ x 10 inches; overall, 8 x 10 inches. Signed by artist at lower right, “A. Onofri.” Contemporary manuscript provenance and notes on verso of backer. Touch of faint, possible water-staining to the artist’s name at the bottom right corner (it is still completely legible). In very good condition.
N.B. 1. The painting could possibly be showing a plantation in Cuba (given this is where Onofri met his wife) or it could be set elsewhere.