Thursday, March 19, 2009

Another journey to attribute a family portrait to Gilbert Stuart

Earlier this month, I received a note from a person I did not know, congratulating me on my discovery and attribution of the Gilbert Stuart portrait Samuel Meeker. My interest was piqued, I wrote back and asked, "Who are you? What is your story?" As it turns out David McCann has been on a strikingly similar path to mine ~ the family possesses an ancestral portrait passed down through the generations, no signature, yet bearing remarkable signs of being a GS portrait. The female sitter Catherine Wister Miles was born in 1742 to a prominent Philadelphian family well-known to the artist, who painted more than one Wister family member. Even more exciting, a portrait of the husband of Catherine, Samuel Miles, is attributed to Gilbert Stuart and is presently housed in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. However, the two paintings were not painted at the same time, at some point they were separated, and the portrait of Samuel Miles has enjoyed the attribution to Gilbert Stuart whereas the portrait of Catherine has not. David, a lover of history, ancestral sleuthing, and as fascinated as I am by the genius of Gilbert Stuart, has made it his mission to gain admission from the experts that the portrait of his ancestor, Catherine Wister Miles, can be attributed to Gilbert Stuart. Here is his story.

My journey of discovery was equally as exciting and, if you would like, I would be happy to share my bibliography with you. The portraits I have attached are of Philadelphia's Samuel Miles and his wife Catherine. The 1802 Stuart portrait of Samuel Miles is housed in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington; the other - of Catherine - in Akron, Ohio. .....So - as to my journey ... well, it is almost like a quest for the Holy Grail - taking me up and down the east coast - meeting with the "experts" and finding more and more information to support my claim. From New York City - Philadelphia and the American Philosophical Society; Winterthur, Delaware and the Downs Collection Library; Washington and the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. It can be a lonely investigative trek, Beth, very lonely - but your portrait has that classic Gilbert Stuart portrait style for men. The women, on the other hand, he did so differently. And therein has been my challenge - but I have not been deterred by what many of the "experts" have had to say. Some say "yes"; others are non-committal - and then there are the naysayers. I have been more intrigued by the history of the woman.....

Catherine Wister Miles (1742-1797) c. 1796
Catherine Wister fell in love with a young soldier of Welsh origin named Samuel Miles, who had seen active service in the French and Indian war and had successfully raised himself from a private to the rank of captain in His Majesty's Service. However John Wister, father of Catherine, considered the young man unsuitable to ask for the hand of his daughter as the Captain did not measure up to the necessary financial and social standards, and, he was not of the Quaker faith. Marriages were definitly not to be defined by love! Samuel Miles had returned to Philadelphia a war hero beaming with pride and resplendent in full regalia and red and gold uniform – Catherine showed her willful determination and strength even at this young age and determined, the young couple were married in February 1761 without parental blessing. Not an auspicious beginning, but eventually Mr. Wister forgave his daughter and backed his son-in-law in the wine and rum trade.

More on Catherine's story, and the attribution, in the next post~ And if you have a similar tale, write me, this is our history and we are proud of it!


emikk said...

The action is getting fast and furious in the Gilbert Stuart realm!

john said...

see you at the gym, great posting

Anonymous said...

Another copy of a portrait of a younger Catherine Wister Miles has surfaced at the Milesburg Museum, Milesburg, PA.
Cheri Banks

Beth Ahrens-Kley said...

hmmm, i will see if I can find it, that would be fun to post, as a 'continuation'...or Cheri if you are near Milesburg, you could photo it?

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