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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · April 02, 2020

Using Colonial Virginia Portraits

digital projects 13 min read

Exploring a Visual Archive with Students

by Janine Yorimoto Boldt

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 by decade), 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?

George Washington, Charles Willson Peale, 1772. Washington & Lee University, University Collections of Art and History.

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?

Henry Tazewell, Charles Willson Peale, 1775. Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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 A number of prominent individuals have entries in Encyclopedia Virginia and many university and public libraries also have access to 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?

Dorothy Waller Tazewell (Mrs. Henry Tazewell), Charles Willson Peale, 1775. Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop (Mrs. John Winthrop), John Singleton Copley, 1773. The Met.

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.

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