In the 19th century, after slave system crisis and its subsequent abolition in 1854, freedmen contemplated different subsistence strategies. Some Afro-Peruvian women continued to practice paid breastfeeding or mercenary breastfeeding. Thus, wet nurse presence in elite's family life was widely accepted by republican Peruvian society; Afro-descendant wet nurses were the most required nursemaids. This practice was captured in photographic portrait, and it represented an affirmation and social aspiration: nursemaid with child portraits reflected family high socioeconomic status, whose heritage included the nursemaid herself.

We feature a selection of Afro-Peruvian wet nurse photographic portraits made by Eugène Courret and his successor Adolphe Dubreuil between 1879 and 1912 in their famous Lima studio E. Courret. Nowdays, more than 50 thousand glass plates are in custody at the National Library of Peru.

Courret brothers and studio portraits

In 1863, the French brothers Achilles and Eugène Courret founded "Central Photography", one of the most important photo studios in Lima at 19th century. Since its establishment, the Courret studio developed a prolific activity, that lasted until 1935; studio portrait was its greatest standard.

Photography quickly consolidated in the city as a vehicle of affirmation and social distinction, cause the elite in Lima reflected their high status through this technique. Thus, the studio portraits, in addition to be a careful image construction or montage projected by aristocracy, were an expression of this period mentality. In these images, as valuable visual documents, were reflected the multiple sociocultural, gender and ethnic ties that were strengthened in the young republican Peru.

This way, the Courret studio fixed images that are part of our heritage and memory.

Central Photography. E. Courret company. Adolphe Dubreuil, successor
The art nouveau façade was inaugurated by Adolphe Dubreuil in 1905

Courret and Dubreuil families.
Ca. 1890.

The ties between the Courret and Dubreuil families date back to the first generation of French migrants to Peru. Eugène Courret and his wife Emilia Basserre were groomsmen of Adolphe Dubreuil, who married Clara Couturier in 1884; and they were godparents of Juanita Dubreuil, Adolphes's first-born daughter. These portraits reflect the close bond between the two families. In 1892, Eugène Courret traveled to France; and Dubreuil, his partner and friend, started to direct the photo studio.

Family portraits: infants and wet nurses

One image recorded by the Courret Study is powerful and endearing: the portrait of tender infants with their wet nurse or nursemaid, an Afro-descendant woman, usually.

In Peru, wet nurse presence in stately homes dates from the colonial period, a time when this practice was relapsed on African slaves. In the 19th century, Afro-Peruvian wet nurses were predominant, not only in traditional and aristocratic families of Lima, but also in foreign and immigrant families who arrived at the country after the economic opening and the splendor of the "era del guano".

Portraits of children with their Afro-Peruvian nursemaids were an essential photograph in the family album and a social prestige sing. These albums constituted a family story or visual chronicle and they were placed at bourgeois residences, where visitors and relatives admired them.

Pedro Tonesi y ama de leche Eugène Courret, 1884

Niña Chaize y ama de cría Eugène Courret, 1883

Paul Ascher was a prosperous merchant and banker. He married Minna Freymann on January 27th, 1880. On the first image, wet nurse holds baby Ascher in her arms, he is the focus of the portrait. In the following two photographs, on baby Ascher's christening, Adolphe Dubreuil portrayed the family in two settings: a lavish space made up with a painted backdrop with columns, curtains and wooded exteriors that are in harmony with the wood balcony on which the infant is located, who is lovingly supported by his parents; and another space formed by a neutral and smooth background, usually used in study portraits.

Count Giacometti Marzano de Viscontiwas born in Piacenza, Italy, and settled in Lima as a merchant and married Victoria Soyer Morote from Lima. The elegance of their clothing allows us to suppose that the family came to the studio on José Luis Giacometti Soyer's christening. He was born on April 25, 1888. Eugène Courret used a sober scenography with plain and neutral backgrounds, carved stone and wood carpet, and pedestals. The gesture of protection and closeness in the portrait is emphasized by wet nurse position.

The study and portrait construction

Courret house is recognized for its remarkable aesthetic construction of photographic image, scenography decoration, furniture and postures hold by portrayed people, who reflected their role in society. In the case of wet nurse portraits, visual discourse in these portraits focuses to transmit familiarity and maternal relationship between the child and his wet nurse. Same expressions, like clasped hands, are found in photos of these infants with their biological mothers.

Generally, the little ones were placed on pedestals, so they were at the same height as their nursemaids. They were also portrayed in the arms or on the lap of their nursemaids; the scenography was composed of neutral or painted curtains with simulated architectures and a room bathed in an overhead light that descended through theatines.

Roberto Augusto Baudrot y amas
Adolphe Dubreuil, 1896

Two young nurses were photographed next to Roberto Baudrot, Augusto Antonio Baudrot’s son, a notable French merchant based in Lima. One of them is smiling and holding the child with her right hand; while the other was in the background, and she stands out for her elegance. Their clothes would indirectly reflect the family high status. The wealthiest families used to have more than one nurse to care for their children.

Boy and his two nursemaids
Benjamin Franklin Pease
Ca. 1855, Daguerreotype
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The composition of these portraits refers to Niño and two wet nurses, one of the first Afro-Peruvian wet nurse portraits, made by Benjamin Franklin Pease, almost half a century earlier. In this image, the nurses surrounded and hold the child located on a luxurious Hepplewhite chair, while, in the background, a third person is hidden behind the curtain, and holds the infant's head, to keep it stable. Due to the approximate date of this photo, it is probable that these Afro-Peruvian women were slaves; this could be symbolized on the whip held by the child.

Nurses were also required to help for individually portraying of infants and younger children. They had to hold them, but they may not appear in the portrait, so they hid behind the furniture, as we can see in the Carmen Gallagher’s portrait. In the different shots, we can see a wet nurse holding the little girl through a tape, behind the chair, to be partially out of the shot.
In some cases, the nursemaids were completely covered with a black cloak and erased from the image. Over time, there were various interpretations that have been made about "absent" presence of the nursemaids: some were related to their invisibility, due to ethnic or class issues; while others were referred to a photographic technique. We are not certain, but apparently mothers weren’t the ones who were covered.

In the same photographic session, various infant portraits were made, including the portrait with their nursemaids. In the shot, Maria Dubois's wet nurse wore pearl earrings and a sober uniform. The girl also posed in an individual or solo portrait. On the other hand, Kitz Dibós's wet nurse was photographed comfortably seated at the same level as the girl, in a recurring composition in Dubreuil"s portraits. In another photograph, on the same small table, she is accompanied by her older sister.

Afro-Peruvian women in 19th century in Peru

After the abolition of slavery in 1854, Afro-Peruvian women attended to subsist in a society where the color of the skin, the degree of education and the socioeconomic status colored each class. According to the Lima census from 1860, many of them were engaged in food sale and production, managed small businesses or were seamstresses and domestic workers, among other trades.

They also offered their services as wet nurses or nursemaids. However, this trade wasn’t a common job, because, despite the modest salary, these women were directly linked to the family nucleus of Lima aristocracy, and they nurtured and assisted their children. To be hired, they were required to comply with rigorous requirements, such as having excellent health, conduct, and impeccable morals.

Photography massively revealed this ancient practice and filled family albums and visiting cards.

José Arias and his wet nurse
Eugène Courret, 1889

At that time, photographic sessions were lengthy, and people had to hold the pose throughout all the process, it was especially difficult if they were children. Therefore, the nursemaids were essential to ensure the success of the portrait. The photo of Baby Arias and his nursemaid needs several shots; in which the elusive little boy draws his nursemaid smiles.

Against a backdrop decorated with a curtain, the baby Melot and his nursemaid were portrayed in different compositions. In the first one, the nurse holds the child on her lap; in the second, a small table was added, and the child was placed at the same height as his nursemaid, it generates greater closeness between them. She looks towards the camera, and the baby smiles and looks towards a point behind the photo shot, possibly where is one of his parents.

Afro-Peruvian nursemaids were usually portrayed wearing a long shawl or shawl placed on their head. Aristocracy women also used it, but it was made with fine-fabrics, ornamented with embroidery; while women from low-social levels used simple-fabrics, such as cotton or linen. The shawl attempted to communicate the person decency and religiosity, qualities that were admired and required in a wet nurse.

What was the evolution and importance of the portrait in Peru in the 19th century?
Sofia Pachas. Art historian