While we are all in quarantine mode, many of us adjusting to
online teaching and turning to digital resources like never before, it is a
good time to explore Colonial
Virginia Portraits, especially if you haven’t already. If you’re
looking for a digital resource to share with students, Colonial Virginia
Portraits can be useful and perhaps provide a change of pace from digital archives
that focus on manuscripts. And while it can’t replace a class field trip to a
museum, perhaps this database can substitute for a field trip as an interactive
activity that allows students to explore material and visual culture. I’ve been
asked by fellow early Americanists to share ideas about how to use the database
as a teaching tool and how to approach portraiture as evidence. I hope that
this blog post helps!
I conceived of Colonial Virginia Portraits as a
visual archive. Launched in February, this database has approximately 350
images and 500 individual records of oil portraits created for Virginians
before ca. 1776. The missing 150 images represent paintings that have been lost
or destroyed, or that I did not receive permission to reproduce. This database
does not claim to be exhaustive; I am sure that more portraits will come to
light and I will add them as I find them (and if you know of one that I’ve
missed, please share!). Currently, the earliest
portrait in the database dates to 1634. I’ve tagged each entry so that
users are able to sort through portraits to view trends over time (browse by attribute and/or
consider which family members were painted and which were not (browse by family), and
where portraits were concentrated (browse by location).
You can also browse by
artist. Where I’ve found contemporary references to individual portraits,
I’ve included them in the notes field. Being able to sort through portraits through
these categories reflects my methodology and approach to studying portraits. Once
I can see these various trends, I can begin making arguments about what
portraiture can tell historians about colonial Virginians.
But for students, and perhaps instructors, who are not used
to working with images as sources, how does one start?
Let’s look at the only portrait of George
Washington that is included on the database. Though Washington was painted
many, many times, his first and only colonial portrait dates to 1772 and
was painted by Charles
Willson Peale, an incredibly prolific artist from Maryland. This is a good
portrait to start with because hopefully all of your students already know
about Washington. Start by asking students to describe what they see in detail.
Note everything from the clothes he wears to his posture to where he directs
his gaze. Include descriptions of all props and the background. Then, they can start
asking questions that lead to interpretation. For instance, what was happening
in 1772 that may have affected how Washington would have been painted? If this
hung in Washington’s home, who was the audience? How might the various elements
– the waterfall, the tipis, the military uniform – be interpreted by different
members of the audience? How does this portrait compare to other portraits by
Peale that are in the database (see the artist
page)? How does it compare to other portraits from the same period,
especially the men’s portraits (check out the portraits from the 1770s)?
What might these differences or similarities tell you about
Washington and about colonial Virginians more broadly? For example, compare
Washington’s portrait to the 1773 portrait of Henry
Tazewell by Peale. Tazewell, he was a lawyer living in Williamsburg, while
Washington was a planter living on a plantation when he was painted. Tazewell
is much more informally painted. Why might that be? What prop(s) does he have
in his portrait that signal his profession?
I’ve included brief biographical information on individual
portrait pages, but students can also find information about most of the
individuals doing their own research online. This is one advantage to the fact
that nearly all the people who could afford a portrait were elite, and
therefore left records behind and with a little digging, basic biographical
information is generally available online. Many nineteenth-century and early
twentieth-century family histories should be freely available through university
library databases (like HathiTrust), Google
Books, and Archive.org. A number of
prominent individuals have entries in Encyclopedia Virginia and many
university and public libraries also have access to Ancestry.com. I also created a page with suggested
reading that may prove useful. Most of the articles should be available
through major databases like JSTOR or ProjectMuse and some of the books are accessible
online as well.
And don’t stop with Colonial Virginia Portraits. Most museums these days have their collections available online. For example, Colonial Williamsburg, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Met, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston have searchable online databases. Have students compare Virginia examples to portraits by John Singleton Copley from Boston or New York, or to Peale’s portraits from Philadelphia. How does the portrait of George Washington compare to that of John Hancock of Boston? What about a comparison between portraits of Virginian Dorothy Waller Tazewell (Mrs. Henry Tazewell) and Bostonian Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop (Mrs. John Winthrop)? What do the portraits suggest about the subject’s priorities and how they wanted to be seen by the world? If you look at enough portraits, you can ask, are there regional differences in how people are represented? The majority of people painted in Virginia would identify as planters, while those in Boston and Philadelphia are largely merchants, but some were tradesmen, like Paul Revere of Boston or the Virginia printer John Dixon. Does profession matter to how people are represented? What clues are there in the portraits themselves?
Teaching a course about family and kinship? This takes a bit
more sleuthing, but look up family surnames and
try to figure out which family members tended to be painted more frequently
(hint: it is not unmarried women). Why might this be?
Teaching about gender? Look up portraits of women and think
about how women are represented. (“Woman” is a
tagged attribute! So is “man,” “girl,” and “boy.”) What
kinds of props do they have? What kinds of settings are they in? How do these
portraits compare to portraits of their husbands or brothers? After answering
these questions, you can ask, what do these portraits and visual strategies
tell us about how gender was constructed in Virginia?
There are also methodological questions and questions about
race that can be asked about the visual archive. Notably, who is not
pictured? For example, all but one of the individual portrait entries feature
white subjects. The only known portrait of a person of African descent was John
“Jack” Custis and his portrait is now presumed lost. Three of the Virginia
portraits feature enslaved
attendants, though their names are unknown, they are not the primary
subject, and they may not even be representations of real people at all, but
instead may be copied from other visual sources. What visual strategies do the
artists use to make it clear to the viewer that the attendant is in a
subservient position? What do these portraits tell us about whiteness? We can
ask the same questions about this visual archive that historians are asking of
other archives. Why are there virtually no non-white people represented? Whose
stories get preserved by the archive – written, visual, or digital? In this
case, whose portraits were made and preserved and whose were not? How can we
tell underrepresented peoples’ stories responsibly when records are difficult
to come by?
These are just some suggestions about how to use the
database. Please explore the site. I find the attribute page a
good starting point for exploration. After all, who isn’t interested in seeing
all the portraits with dogs? (Sorry,
no cats have come to light yet.)
If you do share Colonial Virginia Portraits with your students, I’d be interested in hearing how use you it as a teaching tool or how your students respond to it!
Janine Yorimoto Boldt is the 2018-2020 Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the American Philosophical Society Library & Museum and the researcher behind Colonial Virginia Portraits. Her current book project examines the political and cultural functions of portraiture in colonial Virginia.
A new research project from @NewportHistory_ centers the lives of Black and Indigenous peoples in Newport's historical record. Check out the latest post to learn more about "Voices from the NHS Archives." Now linked on the Octo! https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/the_octo/ #VastEarlyAmerica #Newport