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A Comparison and Contrast of Early American Women's Portraits

The three portraits selected depict the lives of upper class white American women in different ways. Sometimes these depictions are more positive than others. Ralph Earl’s 1789 portrait of Clarissa Seymour (later Mrs. Truman Marsh) portrays a fashionable young woman whose life goes on to epitomize the Republican Motherhood movement and the Thomas Sully 1818 portrait Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely presents a serenely graceful young lady who becomes a renowned wife, mother, and hostess. However, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau’s portrait was so scandalous that John Singer Sargent agreed to not exhibit it again for the rest of her life and when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after Gautreau’s death, he even requested it be titled Portrait of Madame X (1883-1884) as a way to continue to shield the sitter’s identity (Who Was the Mysterious Madame X in Sargent's Portrait?). These works demonstrate that despite their similar backgrounds, each sitter’s personality is expressed through their clothing, accessories and poses and the color palettes and styles used by each painter.

The Early American Republic: Clarissa Seymour and Republican Motherhood

Clarissa Seymour (later Mrs. Truman Marsh) depicts a wealthy young woman from Connecticut. She’s 17 years old in this portrait and is wearing a fashionable form-fitting outfit while seated outside against a scene of a wooded river bank. This background acknowledges her descent from Richard Seymour, one of the first British settlers of Hartford, Connecticut (Horatio Seymour) which is situated along the Connecticut River and is one of the oldest cities in the United States (Historic Hartford). Despite Clarissa’s youth, the museum label claims it is probably an idealized portrait since Earl painted in the English Grand Manner style, which believed in creating flattering depictions of elite subjects through the use of accessories, colors, compositions, facial expressions, postures, settings, and symbols that would express their subject’s nobility (British and American Grand Manner Portraits of the 1700s). This style is also referred to as High Art Portraits since they were based on classical art approaches that generalized and idealized its subjects with harmony and restraint instead of copying from reality (Grand Manner | Tate Glossary of Art Terms).

The texture of Clarissa’s clothing is vividly rendered in painstaking detail showcasing its light, sheer, embroidered, and fringed qualities which displays the sitter’s ability to afford luxurious European fabrics for British-style fashions. She’s wearing an exquisite example of a caraco (a menswear-inspired tight long sleeved jacket fitted to the waist) with a finchu (a triangular linen shawl worn around the shoulders and neck) pinned to her jacket to cover up the low necklines that could be revealed by a tight-fitting dress bodice or light corset (Clothing 1770 - 1800). Or she could be wearing buffon, an extreme form of a finchu that is starched or even shaped with wire to produce an exaggerated fullness that resembles a pouter pigeon’s breast (Terminology: Buffons, Fichu, Neckerchief, Handkerchief). A dark wide sash with gold fringe tied around her waist further emphasizes Clarissa’s delicate figure. Her hair is powdered (resulting in its light grey appearance) and elaborately shaped into the “hedgehog” style with curls piled on top of her head with long tendrils framing her chest (Women’s Hairstyles & Cosmetics of the 18th Century: France & England, 1750-1790). With her modest yet luxurious style, it is not surprising that Clarissa went on to marry a clergyman who became the highly respected Rector of the Episcopal Church in their hometown of Litchfield, Connecticut (Truman Marsh).

Seymour’s life epitomizes the Republican Motherhood movement, the belief that the wives and daughters of American Revolutionary War patriots must embody the ideals of republicanism in order to pass these values onto succeeding generations (Republican Motherhood). Her father was a politician who became troop captain in the 17th Connecticut militia regiment and 5th cavalry in 1777 where he helped repel Major General William Tryon's raid on the Continental Army’s military supplies in Danbury, Connecticut and was present at the surrender of British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York (Moses Seymour). Some believe this movement increased educational opportunities for women because it required understanding of “democracy,” “independence,” and “liberty.” Clarissa’s father played a key role in the plan to sell the Connecticut Western Reserve for $1.2 million in order to fund public education in the state (Connecticut Western Reserve). Several of her family members supported the Litchfield Female Academy, one of the first schools for women in the United States whose innovative curriculum influenced the development of women’s education (A History of the Litchfield Female Academy).

Despite their educations, Republican Mothers were encouraged to remain in domestic spheres to oversee the moral development of their spouses and children so their husbands and sons would behave honorably in their public lives for the greater good of all American citizens (Republican Motherhood). Even though Clarissa did not have children, she was remembered as “a noble mother” to members of her church and viewed as someone with “good common sense united with sound discretion, mildness united with firmness, liberality without extravagance, the highest style of Christian character with the greatest humility” (Clarissa Seymour Marsh). Men in her family continued their political legacy: her brothers were a local postmaster and sheriff (Moses Seymour, Jr.), county sheriff (Ozias Seymour), Vermont Senator (Horatio Seymour), and Mayor of Utica / New York Senator / Erie Canal Commissioner (Henry Seymour). Her nephews included a Governor of New York / the Democratic Party’s 1868 presidential candidate (Horatio Seymour) and a Chief Justice in the Connecticut State Supreme Court (Origen Storrs Seymour).

Expanding the American Empire: Eliza Ridgely and The Education of Women

Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely is another flattering Grand Manner portrait. It depicts a 15 year old heiress from Maryland wearing a fashionably loose gown with a scarf trailing over one shoulder behind her while plucking the strings of a European pedal harp. She’s placed to the left of a classic column while standing in front of a scene of a clear and bright sunset over a rural landscape. The portrait was commissioned by her father, Nicholas Greenbury Ridgely and the painting’s background acknowledges her father’s successful wine business since valleys are often used to produce wine (Torchia 405). The clouds in the scene are a circular swirl that reiterate the harp’s shape and the draping of her scarf in addition to framing Eliza’s face and upper torso.

Her clothing is vividly rendered in painstaking detail showcasing its light, sheer, embroidered, and fringed qualities which displays the sitter’s ability to afford luxurious French-style fashions. She’s wearing an empire-waist floor length gown. This style was part of “a major phase of Neoclassical art [that] [refers] [to] when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte wanted the nation to become a creative leader through a style that incorporated “the grandeur of ancient Egypt, imperial Rome [and] [...] the rich elegance of pre-Revolutionary France.” Women’s fashion “[emphasized] femininity and grace [by] [clothing] [them] in flowing floor-length creations of light fabrics, frequently [...] [with] trains, [with] [exposed] “décolletté and girdled immediately beneath the breasts” (Empire Style). It also represented Eliza’s privileged social status: regularly wearing white gowns and slippers meant that she didn’t engage in activities that would often get her dirty and that when her clothing did get soiled, she had the time, money, and help to make them pristinely clean again (Thomas). A blue scarf trailing over her shoulder to pool behind her music seat accentuates Eliza’s slender figure. Posing with the harp, which is about 6 feet high, implies that she is quite tall. However, Sully acknowledges that he modified her appearance by narrowing her torso and thighs and lengthening and slenderizing her limbs and fingers. Furthermore, Sully claimed that while he “[knows] that resemblance in a portrait is essential [...] no fault will be found with the artist, at least by the sitter, if he [improves] the appearance" (Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely). Eliza went on to marry her fifth cousin John Carnan Ridgely, whose father, Charles Carnan Ridgely, was a politician: a former Maryland senator, governor, and member of the house of delegates (Charles Ridgely of Hampton). After her father-in-law’s death, she inherited part of a 25,000 acre estate and became the mistress of Hampton, a plantation near Towson, Maryland “was the largest private home in the U.S. when it was completed in 1790” (Nuckols). While Eliza certainly looks genteel, the Empire style worn for her portrait is different from the wide sleeved, hoop-skirted style associated with the antebellum era (Monet).

Eliza’s portrait symbolizes debates over how American women should be educated. She attended Miss Lyman's Institution in Philadelphia because her father “believed a [British-style] boarding school education would provide [her][...] with the skills for social success” (Torchia 410). At the time of her portrait “American women were denounced [by] [British] [critics] for being unsophisticated, ignorant, and devoid of the social graces” (406). Depicting her with a harp was “a direct allusion to Eliza's mastery of music [which] in the British system of female education [....] was [considered] an "elegant" or "ornamental accomplishment" along with needlework, the study of foreign languages, and drawing” (413). However, some people, including Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of The Declaration of Independence, thought American women should not receive European educations because it would foster “decadence and moral laxity [...] [and] [that] instrumental music [...] by no means accommodated to the present state of society and manners in America." Music was considered a frivolous activity compared to the study of “history, philosophy, poetry, and the numerous moral essays” which Rush believed would be more useful to developing American women’s intellects. Other critics even claimed that musical study would “generate vanity, and to call forth and inflame the selfish passions" (414-415). Receiving a European style education that valued women’s achievements in the arts and foreign language fluency threatened the Republican Motherhood movement’s insistence that American women must sacrifice their ambitions to support their male family members’ success.

The Gilded Age: Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau and New Womanhood

Madame X depicts a 24 year old socialite from Louisiana living in Paris (Pastore). Virginie is wearing a black floor length gown with a plunging neckline and severely nipped in waist, which indicates the use of an extremely tight laced corset. That belies the claims of critics who interpreted the original version of the portrait, which showed one of her bejeweled gold chain straps slipped off her shoulder, as a depiction of her dress about to fall off (Cartner-Morley). Her hair is pinned up and away from her face, which reveals her angular bone structure and aloof expression. She is wearing a delicate gold half-moon shaped diadem, which symbolized Diana, Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. It may have been an acknowledgement of her infidelities. Virginie comes from a privileged but impoverished family and married Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy, older banker (Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)). While the position she is holding her fan in directs the eye to her crotch, “her heavy, stiff dress [...] [reminds] the viewer that her body is hers alone to possess” (Coulter). Not only was the portrait considered scandalous for being ostentatious, haughty, sexual, and too revealing, the color black was primarily associated with mourning during this era and wearing it in other situations was considered improper (100 Years of Exquisite Mourning Dresses). The background is a bare brown and beige interior. Its neutral tones offset the colors of her gown, makeup, and un-made up ear to produce a dramatic effect. The bare interior heightens attention to the details of her ensemble and her striking pose. Unlike Earl and Sully, Sargent did not flatter his subjects. He used a Realistic style for his portraiture that looked conventional but had an “experimental sensibility” that attempted to convey psychological insights about his sitter’s nature while presenting a dramatic scene (Churchwell).

Unlike, Seymour and Ridgely, Gautreau’s portrait was not commissioned. Sargent “desperately [wanted] to establish himself as a society portraitist” and needed a “a socially prominent subject” who would garner attention. Since Virginie was “widely admired for her swanlike neck and striking features” he approached her. She eventually agreed to model for him after one of her lovers who posed for Sargent, Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, convinced her it would be a good idea (Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X). This decision led to her downfall. The growth of cities during the Gilded Age had “the most significant impact on women” because it enabled them to have more public lives. This started the “New Woman” era for middle and upper class women. They began attending public events with their husbands, bicycling outdoors, pursuing educational opportunities, and participating in social change campaigns for reproductive health, settlement homes, temperance, and other issues. But as these women “[became] more visible in the social world, [their] behavior [was] more likely to be scrutinized for transgressions. As a result, [women] [had] to find some means between displaying class and status and demonstrating etiquette and propriety” (The Gilded Age and the Beginning of the New Woman). The Gilded Age (1870-1900) coincided with the Victorian era (1837–1901) and even though “attitudes toward sex were loosening in private [...] few were brave enough to discuss the changes publicly” (Victorian Values in a New Age). As a result, it was inevitable that Virginie’s life became a scandal when her portrait was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884. She was ridiculed by critics and the public for looking too proud and revealing. At worst, Virginie was accused of being shameless (Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X). She tried to repair her reputation by commissioning a portraits of herself---one of which even included a fallen strap (Mme Pierre Gautreau by Gustave Courtois) but it did not help (Moss 270). Gautreau was shunned by her high society social circle and “retreated from the public eye and died in obscurity” (Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X).


Earl, Sully, and Sargent demonstrate that as American women’s portraits progressed from the Grand Manner style to a Realist style, they focused on portraying individuals’ personalities and state of mind through idiosyncratic poses, daring makeup choices, and the inclusion of objects meaningful to the sitter instead of merely recording external details that supported the era's ideals of womanhood (like Seymour’s conservative dress and Ridgely’s rosy cheeks). Women’s fashions also became more revealing as portraits becomes more contemporary. However, a strong sense of social class is maintained from the Republican Motherhood era to the New Woman era.

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