Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More on Dolley Madison, saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, her slave Jennings, and ....Daniel Webster!

Dolley Madison painted by Gilbert Stuart 1804, White House Collection
Dolley Madison by William Elwell 1848; National Portrait Gallery
Click here for a great telling of the story of Dolley Madison, asking the question, how/who really saved the Stuart portrait of Washington! from *18th-century American Women--a museum in a blog*

an historical mystery...

Below is MY COMMENT, but I recommend you read the entry first... ! and if anyone has more thoughts/chooses to do more research on this, please comment as well!
Re: "Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored. Whenever soldiers marched by, during the war, she always sent out and invited them in to take wine and refreshments, giving them liberally of the best in the house."
So did Mrs. Madison really save the Stuart portrait, or is Jennings correct? Perhaps there is truth to both sides, Dolley did not stand there while the portrait was being cut and taken down, but ordered it to be done (and she flees)...why would servants risk their safety in the face of the approaching British, if there was no order to save the portrait? She was a "remarkably fine woman" according to Jennings. Seems likely she would possess the wherewithal, composure and intelligence to recognize the value of the portrait of Washington, and knew that its safety would be jeopardized....Anyway, super entry, I would like to mention it in my blog, if you don't mind?
her response:
Please do, Beth. And thank you! Barbara

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gibby's pigs lead the way home

As mentioned in the last entry, J.D. Herbert is an important source on Stuart's Irish years. The following is related in G. Mason.

Herbert was invited by Stuart to visit him at his residence, promising to give him a bed and that he should "dine on pork fed on apples." The invitation was accepted.

"On the ensuing Sunday I went to Stillorgan, and as I walked up a narrow road that led to that quarter from the Black Rock, I saw some very pretty pigs; it struck me at one moment's view that they belonged to Stuart, and that I could not be distant from his house: to try that I was right in my conjecture, I took up little pebbles and threw them at them. They ran on and I followed. They led to a gate, into which they entered. It lay open, and before the house I saw Stuart, tending some flower-pots.

"'Ha,' said he, 'you are come.'

"Yes, please the pigs.'

"Then I told him how they had led me. He was delighted at the recital, and more complimented than anything I could say in praise of his pictures. He said, 'You shall taste pork today of their kind, and you will acknowledge my plan to be a good one for feeding them.' He then took me to his garden, which was well cropped, all by his own hands; walked me over the grounds, and pointed out his skilll in farming; he valued himself more on these points than on painting. ...We then got back to the house, and dinner was served. I ate the apple-fed pork, and was greatly pleased with it. Stuart entertained me till bed-time...Many other anecdotes followed, which would spin out a rare tale."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

the true meaning of wealth and power to Gibby was not nobility nor aristocracy

This iconic masterpainter one day disappeared from the grand digs in London, and the suggestion is that the sudden and secret flight of the artist and family was to escape pressing debts. Finally he turned up in Dublin at the apparent invitation of the Duke of Rutland, who inconveniently passed away at the same time as our Gibby and family arrived. Shockingly, Gilbert landed into debtors prison but recovered his animal spirits by setting up his easel behind bars, and the local gentry flocked there to have their portrait painted.
The artist lived for a time in the city but soon bought a farm at Stillorgan. Here he was able to tend to his garden and farm animals, including his beloved pigs. J.D. Herbert is an important source on Stuart's Irish years (about 1787-1793). Herbert visited Stillorgan and relates the following;

"He then took me to his garden, which was well-cropped, all by his own hands, walked me over the grounds, and pointed out his skill in farming......I cordially confessed that I should rather see his works in his painting-room, that I was ignorant of farming, gardening, or feeding pigs. He pitied me very much, observing what a loss I sustained by not attending to the cultivation of that on which mankind were supported and rendered wealthy and powerful." Herbert found that the artist was more pleased by praise of his "very pretty pigs" than by "anything I could say in praise of his pictures."
next... more on the pigs

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Re-Creating Gilbert Stuart"; excerpts from an essay on the history of American frames by W. Adair

reprinted here, image/text with permission from W. Adair

Gilbert Stuart portraits were framed in a variety of frame styles: From left: the frame for Thomas Coffin Amory’s portrait featured oak leaf ornamentation (1810) considered appropriate for a masculine subject; Isaac Coffin’s portrait (1810) was framed with an even denser oak leaf ornamentation; Sarah Linzee’s portrait (1807) was reframed several decades later in a Greek Revival style frame; and Mrs. Thomas Amory’s portrait featured a frame with alternating anthemion and wreath ornamentation (1806).

Historical Background
During the eighteenth century in this country, the frames used to enhance the work of serious and aspiring American artists were generally imported from England and Europe and thus displayed traditional European designs. By comparison, paintings by itinerant American limner painters were often given modest frames of plain boards that could be made by American cabinetmakers or carpenters working in a vernacular idiom. The dull, black, painted finish on such frames, applied to a molding shaped by chisels and gouges, answered the needs of sitters who lived in rural areas and who were not tempted by the elaborate European designs seen in urban homes. Providing a simple setting for a painter’s own straightforward approach, the modestly profiled and painted frame stands as one of the first American contributions to the art of picture framing.

The tradition of frame making is best described as a blend of cabinetmaking, sculpture, and painting. Frames showing mastery of all three skills satisfy the demands of a sophisticated collector. Historically, the most valuable frames have been hand-carved and gilded in the traditional European manner with genuine gold leaf, with the wood first prepared with successive coats of gesso and clay mixed with hide glues in the great tradition of the Italian Renaissance. The English swept-corner reflects this great tradition and was typical of urban mid-eighteenth century American portraits of quality. Frames at that time typically cost a little less than half the value of the portrait, depending on the artist and frame maker. They were sometimes imported from London and sometimes carved in America "in the latest style."

William B. Adair received his B.F.A. in Studio Art from the University of Maryland in 1972. For the next 10 years he worked for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery as a museum conservator specializing in the treatment of picture frames. In 1982 he formed his own company, Gold Leaf Studios, for the making of frames and the conservation of gilded antiques. Over the years his clients have included the U.S. Department of State and the National Park Service. He is the founder of the International Institute for Frame Study, a non-profit archive dedicated to collecting and disseminating information on the history of frames.

He can be reached via e-mail at

Monday, September 14, 2009

Or, WAS the frame on the Meeker portrait purchased in the 1860s, ie. is not the original? Where was the portrait in the 1860s?

A FAMILY PHOTO circa 1901
Thomas Mulford Martin and wife Catherine (my gt gt grandparents) of RAHWAY NJ on the left, their daughter Carrie (my gt grandmother in the middle), husband Lewis from San Jose California (very right, gt grandfather), & their 5 children, my Pops is the youngest boy. Thomas would have been in possession of the portrait in the 1860s. The senior Martins are visiting my gt-grandparents in Fresno, California in this photo. Pops passed away in 1983, my mom lives here in Santa Cruz. She is 81 (see entry March 1 09 for a darling photo.)

The expert on American frames (and conservation) Hugh wrote me: "Then there is the question of whether the frame is American or an English import. Reeded top moldings with ribbon bindings occur in the UK around 1800, but I believe they are not generally popular here till circa 1860."

So, now I don't know whether the frame is English (possibly part of a Meeker shipment from Liverpool--->New Orleans---> Philadelphia?) or purchased later, ie an American frame, possibly when some repairs/conservation (relining) were done on the portrait? So let me take a closer look at the family, to see where the portrait would be at this particular time, in the 1860s. The portrait would now be with my gt gt grandfather Thomas Mulford Martin (1831-1917). He and his wife Mary Catherine (Ayers) and 3 daughters Carrie (my gt grandmother who married the Californian), Jennie (Jane), and Emma lived in Rahway New Jersey: the census of Union County NJ 1900 shows him to be a manufacturer of book bindings. Perhaps this elegant looking frame caught his eye, and wanting to refurbish the portrait he also changed the frame? Thomas was the grandson of Phebe Meeker, Samuel Meeker would have been his gt uncle.

Perhaps the gold leafing can tell us more?
One thing we can be certain of, the Meeker portrait was still in the East in the 1860s...

I just talked to Bill Adair, for about an hour on the phone. He is very knowledgeable on American frames.

A comment from William Adair, Gold leaf Studios, Washington, DC.
(goldleafstudios at
Hi, I think it is also a revival frame from the last quarter of the 19th century, it has no spline on the reverse, the width of the moulding is consistent with Victorian era frames, the painting has been relined, and other issues such as the fact that it is oil gilded lead me to the conclusion that it is a frame that is not original to the painting.
The frame is, most likely, Victorian! More info on the differences in the style of this particular frame (between English and American), will follow when Bill has the time to send me some scans.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

the Stuart frame continued..."wood type and quality, bole color, gold leafing method".... THE PLOT THICKENS

the German influence and the importance of context
I sent this photo to the conservator in my last letter, so that he could see the profile of the frame, and have a more detailed view of the gold-leafing.
On Fri, Sep 4 I wrote the expert back:
Dear Hugh,

Thanks so much for your input on my questions about the frame.
Yet now, I do have a couple more questions for you. I wonder what makes you believe that, "based on the picture, the frame is not original"?
There exist at least two G. Washington portraits with the same frame (suggested to be original with the portrait) ("reeded top moulding with cross straps, a plain deep cove, a bead and flat liner")-- and this would be a few years before the painting of my portrait which I figure was done about 1803. I also have no reason to believe that some generations back someone in the family changed the frame...
re: "it has been lined and fitted with a later stretcher" What does the word "lined" mean?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~He wrote back 5 days later (I am ALWAYS appreciative of replies):

Dear Beth,
I have not forgotten your frame question. I say "based on the picture" because I get so much more information by looking at the object, for example, details like wood type and quality, bole color, gold leafing method, shade of gold, quality of compo or any carving, etc. A view of the outer edge would also be helpful to see if it is coved, the shape of the cove, whether it is painted or gilded, etc. The pattern of nail holes caused by holding the stretcher in the frame also can be considered.

Then there is the question of whether the frame is American or an English import. Reeded top moldings with ribbon bindings occur in the UK around 1800, but I believe they are not generally popular here till circa 1860. Again, based on the pictures, the frame appears to be American.

The lining of a painting involves adding a new support (often canvass) to the back, and I only mention it in passing. The replaced stretcher is more relevant; an original stretcher can be a significant help in determining whether a frame is original, and in this case that information is now lost.

I hope this helps. As I continue to study American frames I will remember your question and will let you know of any new information.

Best, Hugh


This response was informative. I had never even thought of the issue, is the frame American or English? (Although as has already been mentioned, the issue of whether the canvas is American or British has been raised, it is British.) I decided to write back with details as to why I think the frame is most likely original, and thereby (according to Hugh) most likely British. Afterall, is the context not of high interest? To study something out of the context can not aid in understanding it seems to me. (Another example of this is the fact that in almost all studies/bios of Stuart, it seems that minimal attention is paid to the fact that there was a significant German immigration/population in Philadelphia at the time ("Germantown"), that at this time Goethe was the blazing cultural star.....{possible influence on the concept of the "Skater"?})

I wrote back:

Dear Hugh,

All very interesting, thanks for taking an interest in this, etc! If I could bring the portrait to you, I would, but it is not really feasible because both I and the portrait are in Santa Cruz, Ca. So..... when do you take trips to San Francisco, if ever? I would invite you over for the day in Santa Cruz, and then you could study the portrait!

The sitter in this Stuart portrait is Samuel Meeker (if you wikipedia him, I am the one who wrote a small entry), and in the late 1790s he had a shipping firm in Philadelphia called Meeker, Denman & Co-- his cousin William Meeker (also painted by Stuart) was their agent in London. William died in 1812, 'en route to New Orleans' so I believe that he died on the way home to the states from England, possibly as a tragic event due to the war of 1812. Samuel was a leading shipping merchant, and its very possible that the ships that took American goods out to Liverpool, brought back English items. Possibly frames? This type of reeded frame with cross straps was the original put on Stuart's G. Washington frame which was painted late 1790s, so surely it was/became popular before the 1860s?

There has been some compo repairs to some of the decor on this Meeker frame, when it fell over on its face, at my mom's house. She had taken it off the wall in her house because the walls were about to be painted! But otherwise I would have no reason to believe that any family member back to my gt grandmother would have decided to put this frame on the portrait, altho its possible. Going back further, my gt grandmother's gt grandmother Phoebe Meeker was gifted the portrait by her twin brother Samuel Meeker--Phoebe ended up getting a divorce so she would not have changed the frame, nor her daughter..... Somehow just thinking about this logically, it doesn't make sense that anyone other than the "wealthy sitter" purchased this frame in about 1803... 1803 was the last year Stuart was in Philadelphia, 1803 was the year the newly formed bank in which Meeker was one of the Directors (the Philadelphia National Bank, see book by Wainright) gave its first loan to Meeker, Denman & Co., 1803 was the year the twins Samuel and Phoebe turned 40... It just seems to be logical that Samuel might have been pleased to have the same frame put on his portrait as George did....Its very, very easy to imagine. Meeker liked to show every evidence of success, he even owned a country estate on the Schuylkill.
What I am telling you here, took years to piece together. Other Stuart sitters ... are more well-known...

Yes, I have been doing lots of research, since the portrait came from my mom to me. The frame is something I am no expert on, thats why what you have to say is so interesting. Its hard to take good quality photos close up--the two photos of the back which I sent you were taken with a high resolution camera. In my opinion there is no carving...It seems to me the only part not gilded is the outmost smallish part of the frame~ Is there a way I can photograph that would be more helpful? What does 'bole color' mean?
I am sending a new pic which should be at the bottom of this note, which should give you an idea of the profile and a closer look at the leafing.

Have a very good day,
remaining your obedient servant

Friday, September 4, 2009

tinker? tailor? soldier? spy? No! AN EXPERT !

a replica of the famous Landsdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart 1796-97
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Sorry about how small the image is above, but you the reader will be barely able to make out the outlines of the frame around this portrait, topped by ornate patriotic national symbols (to honor the subject George Washington.) Now, compare that frame to the frame around Meeker as shown below. (Meeker of course is without the special topping.) But, what does one logically think? Naturally, the frame on my portrait originates from this particular time period, without a doubt. ('Choose a frame that also adorns Washington's portrait?' thought my ancestor, 'why, sounds like a great idea!') So one can logically make the conclusion that, unless a past family member of mine went to a whole bunch of trouble to have such a frame copied as shown above, it must be original. My past family (particular members who owned this portrait at one time or another) do not have a reputation for 'wasting/being lavish with money.' (About gt gt Aunt Emma {from Princeton, see entry June 4 09 and click on family tree image}, sister of Carrie who brought Meeker to California, the story is told that she counted her multitudes of silver every night before locking it up, afraid it seems that the tiniest little piece might be swiped.) When I saw the portrait above in the book "Gilbert Stuart", the MET edition by Carrie Barratt and Ellen Miles, and a bit later read " The late 18th century gold leaf portrait frame with 'a triple reeded top molding with cross straps occurring at 12” intervals, a plain deep cove, a bead and flat liner” went with painting directly from Bingham to the Pennsylvania Academy." I thought BINGO... ...its orginal.

Last weekend I wrote an expert, to see what he would say. Just out of curiosity. He is a conservator at Williamstown Art Conservation Center. He wrote back! That was nice, but I was....lets say, somewhat surprised!
Dear Beth
I have shared your pictures with colleagues at work. Based on the pictures the frame is not original. We take the painting to be late 18th early 19th century and it has been lined and fitted with a later stretcher. The cove frame with its reeding, bindings of ribbon, and small compo ornament is later. Your frame is still good for the portrait because it has some of the simplicity of early frames. We see it is gilded with gold leaf.

If you are local to us in Williamstown Mass you can bring it in so we can see it more clearly. I hope this helps. Let me know of any questions. Hugh
TO BE CONTINUED (hopefully, I have written him back)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The random monthly pick: Mrs. Barney Smith... and a famous country estate tells a story of a disgraced loyalist from the Revolutionary times

detail: Mrs. Barney Smith

The Random Monthly Pick
A new feature, I will make a random monthly choice of a Stuart sitter, and tell their story as best I can!
Mrs. Barney Smith, or Ann, was married in 1783 to Barney Smith of Taunton, Massachusetts, a Boston importer. They were the parents of three children, all of whom were painted by Stuart. The principle item of interest pertaining to this couple seems to be that Barney bought and occupied the "Governor Hutchinson estate in Milton" (from Lawrence Park). Thus, here I take a closer look at the story of the Governor and his famous country estate in Milton, Massachusetts.

Mrs. Barney Smith (1755-1843) by Gilbert Stuart, Boston 1817
Thomas Hutchinson was the last royal Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and built in 1734 a country estate boasting spectacular views of the Neponset River and its tidal salt marshes, the Boston skyline, and the Boston Harbor Islands. He was a prominant Loyalist in the years before the American Revolution but his zealous loyalty to the crown inspired ridicule in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, and, in 1774, shortly after the Boston Tea Party, Hutchinson fled to England.

“Hutchinson, naturally drawn to Milton, his great-grandfather having been one of its first settlers, made this his country seat in 1743, and it was his summer home from that time until his departure for England, in June, 1774, when things were becoming warm in Boston. After the destruction of his elegant town house at the North End, by the Stamp Act mob, this was his principal dwelling. Here he awaited the action of the people in the Old South Meeting-house, assembled on the eve of the “Boston Tea Party;” and here came “Quaker” Rotch, at their command, with his request for a pass for the Dartmouth with her cargo to clear forthwith, upon the refusal of which the “detested tea” was tipped overboard. Whatever may have been his faults as a crown officer, Hutchinson was a good Miltonian and made himself “respected and loved by all his neighbors.”...When he left for England, as it happened, never to return, “he walked from his home along the road, bidding adieu to his neighbors, and shaking hands with them. When near Dorchester Neck (now South Boston), he got into his carriage, which had followed him, and drove to Dorchester Point, where a boat was waiting to take him on board the Minerva.” further “After the Lexington affair, the house was taken possession of by the town, and subsequently confiscated. “Washington, it is said, rides in my coach to Cambridge,” Hutchinson mournfully writes in his diary upon receipt of letters from America. ............” (from “Walks and rides in the country round about Boston” by Edwin M. Bacon, for the Appalachian Mountain Club, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston and NY, The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1898; p.323)
One can imagine that members of the Barney Smith family were indeed very proud to be owners of this historical house!
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