Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview IV

Death of General Wolfe Benjamin West, c. 1770

Recently, I have been looking into the life and work of Benjamin West, the first American painter of international renown. A portrait that was loaned to Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago is in question regarding its attribution as it was one of his early works while he still lived in America. The portrait, depicting Severn Eyre of the illustrious and wealthy Eyre family on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, dates to somewhere between 1749-1759. Due to the time (as Benjamin West was born in 1738 and would had to be between the age of 11-21 when he painted this) and the location (as West primarily painted only in Pennsylvania and briefly in New York before going abroad and never returning), the attribution is questioned. So, I was to look into the whereabouts of Benjamin West during this time and see if it was remotely possible that this portrait may have actually been done by him.

Benjamin West (1738-1820) was born near Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to an innkeeper. Though his parents attended Meeting, they did not belong to the Society of Friends until later, when West was already in England. In a painting from 1772 when he was visited by family in England, West depicts his family in the simple and modest clothing of Quakers while he depicts his wife, children, and himself wearing lavish and fashionable clothing, standing out from his half-brother and father who sit before him. He was encouraged to pursue his talents from a young age, despite the fact that Quakers generally disapprove of portrait painting. Nevertheless, according to the legends written by Benjamin West’s biographer, John Galt, he made his first likeness at the age of 6-7 and soon caught the attention of rich and well-connected men who stayed at his family’s tavern, gaining patronage that would bring him to Lancaster, PA and then to Philadelphia. There, he was introduced to the professional painter William Williams who inspired him to pursue painting as a career. While in Lancaster in 1755-56, he paints “Death of Socrates,” his first history painting, something that he would pursue for the rest of his life. In 1756, he attracted the attention of Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia (now UPenn), and had a program focusing on classical learning specially devised for West, something which would encourage his imagination and influence his history paintings in the future. After meeting William Kelly in New York (where he moved in 1758 in search of higher fees for his paintings), he is given 50 pounds for a voyage to Italy, where he is to study the masters and improve upon his skill.
In 1760, Benjamin West sets sail for Europe and never returns to America, though it always holds a dear place in his heart and vocally introduces himself as American to many of those he meets in Europe. After three years in Italy studying the masters and learning from Anton Raphael Mengs, he travels to London, where he sets up shop and establishes himself. In less than three years, he becomes close friends with both Benjamin Franklin (who later becomes the godfather of his second son) and King George III. Soon, he is appointed a charter member of the Royal Academy of Arts where he is able to display his paintings and establish great renown. He is appointed the History Painter to King George III in 1772 and then the Surveyor of the King’s Paintings in 1791. In 1792 he is elected the second president of the Royal Academy, a position he serves for 28 years (apart from a yearlong blip where he attempts to retire but is unsatisfied by the new president’s work so he takes over a second time in 1806).
All of this is to show that Benjamin West was highly regarded for his adept skill at painting and his creative and revolutionary outlook on history painting. Before West, history painters depicted their subjects in classical garb, something that was a key pillar of the neoclassical style. However, West decided to depict historical scenes with greater accuracy and in time-period appropriate attire. For instance, his most famous work “The Death of General Wolfe” depicts a scene from 1759 in the French and Indian War, with the subjects all wearing their military attire. This accuracy and realism changed the tide for history painters and, while he did face backlash initially, influenced many painters who came after him. Benjamin West is often known as the Father of American Painting, as he took many fledgling American artists under his wing, including John Singleton Copley, Charles Wilson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully. The list goes on, but it is clear that the influence of Benjamin West extends beyond the 400+ works that he produced.
As I wrap up the last few days of my internship here, I am still trying to find out whether or not Benjamin West could have painted the portrait of Severn Eyre, attempting to place him in Virginia or Eyre in Philadelphia. Stay tuned!

Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview III

Another project I’ve worked on that has spanned the majority of the summer was the research of both sitter and painter of a recently acquired painting to the CWF collection. The portrait, depicting a middle aged woman in fashionable, yet relaxed dress, hails from the Lynchburg/ Bedford, VA area. When the research was handed over to me, the date of the portrait had been established at around 1820-1830 roughly based on her fashion, which the Costumes curator had determined. Across the back of the portrait was the name “Yancey” and through research it was shown that this portrait was likely that of Elizabeth “Bettie” Macon Yancey, wife of Col. Joel Yancey. From Bedford, VA, Joel Yancey had served in the War of 1812 and then settled down in Bedford at a home called “Rothsay.” Joel was the superintendent of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and the couple frequently dined at Jefferson’s country home. Bettie and Joel had a number of children, but only a few of them went on to marry and have children of their own. However, their grandson Robert Davis Yancey was the subject of a novel turned movie in the 1940s titled “The Vanishing Virginian.” When Joel died in 1833, Bettie moved to Lynchburg, buying a home for herself and her young daughters in the downtown area, a house that still stands today and is known as the Elizabeth Yancey House. For the most part, however, Joel and Bettie were fairly upper middle class, and the portrait of her reflects that. It is an intimate portrait, likely only intended for consumption by family and close friends and displayed in private rooms of the house, due to the informality and intimacy of the portrait.

My research focused on learning anything I could about Mrs. Yancey and possibly identifying a painter. There were few painters with studios in Lynchburg or Bedford during the early-mid 19th century, but quite a number of itinerant painters who set up shop temporarily before moving on to the next town. However, the work of Harvey Mitchell caught my attention. A native of the Bedford/Lynchburg area, Mitchell was born around 1801 and made a career of portrait painting. He primarily worked in Bedford and Lynchburg, painting many family members, but he also made it down as far as South Carolina, as newspaper advertisements show. He never signed any of his work, making it difficult to attribute a number of his works, but it seems as if his style varied quite a bit. He stood out to me from the other possibilities due to the significant connections that he had to the Yancey family. His sister Katherine Mitchell married into the Steptoe Family of Bedford through James C. Steptoe. Bettie and Joel’s daughter Catherine Louisa also married a Steptoe, Thomas Steptoe, the brother of James. Additionally, a third brother, William Steptoe, was close friends with Joel Yancey, with whom he had fought in the War of 1812. Additionally, William Steptoe was the primary physician for Thomas Jefferson when he was at Poplar Forest, and is also known to have dined with Jefferson there. Even further, Harvey Mitchell’s father owned the grain mill that supplied Poplar Forest, and this man would have been someone that Joel Yancey was rather acquainted with, as correspondence indicates. Thus, because of these connections through business and marriage, I feel as if there are a number of opportunities in which a portrait painting may arise. After studying a number of Harvey Mitchell’s paintings, similarities begin to arise. However, the examples of his other works are not high quality and I have been attempting to find better examples to help conclusively make this attribution.

This research has been a fun dive into hundreds of questions for which there are not yet complete answers. My research on this portrait has helped raise these questions and open doors as I was in contact with museums across the Central Virginia region, art appraisers, and even a descendant of the painter Harvey Mitchell. It has been one of the most interesting projects I have worked on this summer and I enjoyed getting well acquainted with Mrs. Yancey.

Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview II

Andrew Jackson, Ralph E.W. Earl, c. 1836-37Another project that I’ve worked on during my time at Colonial Williamsburg was researching the life of Ralph E.W. Earl. The Foundation acquired two of his portraits last summer, which are on display now in the “Artists on the Move: Portraits for a New Nation” exhibit at the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. These portraits, depicting Thomas Claiborne Jr. and his wife Sarah Lewis King Claiborne, help Colonial Williamsburg tell the story of how America came into being by introducing sitters from Tennessee, some of the first from this region to be acquired by the Foundation.

My research did not focus on the Claibornes, though. Rather, I was tasked with researching the life of Ralph E.W. Earl, a prolific painter nicknamed the “king’s painter” or “court painter” or Andrew Jackson. Earl was the son of Ralph Earl, famous itinerant painter of the Revolutionary War era. He received his early training from his father before leaving New England to study with Benjamin West and John Trumbull in England. Upon his return, he was determined to create dramatic history paintings like West, particularly interested in depicting the heroes of the Battle of New Orleans. This interest would impact the rest of his life. Ralph E.W. Earl met Andrew Jackson in 1817, and he was immediately taken with his talent and character, inviting him to paint portrait of his family. From there, the two were virtually family. Earl married Jackson’s niece Jane Caffery, and, although she died but a year later, Earl never left the Jackson family. Throughout his career, Earl traveled alongside Jackson, painting portraits of Jackson, his family, his friends, and political allies or those he wished to win over. Ralph E.W. Earl was single handedly responsible for the depiction and image of Jackson, which would later aid in his presidential campaigns. Earl lived with Jackson at The Hermitage, joined him at the White House (where he got his own studio), and returned to the Hermitage where he lived until his death, with Jackson by his side. The two became especially close after the death of Jackson’s wife Rachel. Earl created dozens of portraits of Jackson, many of which you would recognize (such as the portrait above). However, despite this number of paintings and such a famous sitter, there has been little academic discussion on Ralph E.W. Earl, with the first significant-length book published only just this year.

Essentially, I created a timeline of Earl’s life and compiled a massive artist folder with important information on Earl so that future curators and researchers may also be able to learn about Earl’s works. I also created a document with all of the known paintings by Earl, which was over one hundred (and that was excluding those that were just attributed to him). This research I’ve done will be helpful for the future of Colonial Williamsburg as they expand their story of early America and include sitters and artists from all regions.

Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview I

One of the projects I have been working on at Colonial Williamsburg is researching the sitter of a recently acquired painting by the Foundation. This painting is remarkable in that it was passed down in the family since the 18th century after its creation. Additionally, the painting was done by William Dering, a known artist who was working in Williamsburg in the mid 18th century. It’s exciting to find artists who worked in Williamsburg as it really helps to tell the story of the colonial city. Dering was principally a dancing master, actually teaching at the College of William and Mary for some time while he was in Williamsburg, and he also dabbled in a number of other arts that he advertised in local papers, attempting to make a living with the skills he had. There are only a few known Dering portraits and Colonial Williamsburg has a majority of these, appropriately.

In regards to the sitter, Dering painted a vibrant portrait of Joyce Armistead Booth, a woman of class and exemplary of the rising aristocracy in budding Colonial America. She was married to a merchant in Gloucester, where they lived at Belleville, a plantation home that her husband, Mordecai Booth, had inherited and acquired through his father’s skillful buying up of property in the area. My research focused on finding anything I could about Joyce and her son George, of whom there is also a portrait in the collection by Dering. Together, the two tell a story about planter aristocracy in Tidewater Virginia, about aesthetics and goals they wished to portray through portraiture. Unfortunately, very little information on Joyce and George exists and I still cannot find birth or death dates for Joyce. However, the lack of information about an individual can sometimes tell a history on its own.

Hello from Colonial Williamsburg!

My name is Caitlin and as part of my Woody Museum Studies Internship experience this summer, I am working with the curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture at Colonial Williamsburg. I am an Anthropology Major with an Art History Minor. My placement with paintings was well suited to my knowledge base and interest, and, thus far, what I’ve enjoyed most about my internship is getting the opportunity to dive deep into research on the paintings in the collection, getting personal with the sitters and artists by researching their genealogy, timelines of their lives, where and when they were in a particular city and why. There are many questions involved in curatorial research, many of which remain unanswered due to lack of documentation. This is especially true for many of the paintings and artists that I have been researching, who aren’t particularly well known but still prolific and incredibly talented. Thus, much of the research is like doing a puzzle, but with only a few pieces to assemble it.

This summer has consisted of a number of varying projects in the department, rather than a single project for the entire summer. These projects provide a broad scope of everything that the curators at Colonial Williamsburg do in their job. Every few weeks I’ve been able to attend the accessions meetings with the collections staff, in which I’ve learned a lot about how accessioning objects works and the way in which a large institution makes decisions and plans for its future. We also have intern professional development tours once a week, in which all of the Colonial Williamsburg Interns meet with the curators and conservators of a department to get better acquainted with the collection. It has also been great to meet the other interns and learn about what they’re doing in their internship. In my ten weeks working with Colonial Williamsburg, I hope to gain comprehensive understanding of what a curator’s job entails, acquaint myself with Early American Art and Folk Art, and build professional skills and connections.