Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Take the canal boat from Pittsburgh"

In 1835 Rebecca Gratz visited her brother Benjamin and his family in Lexington, Kentucky, for several months over the summer. As fall approached her brother Hyman wrote her, promising to meet her on her way home at Wheeling, West Virginia, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He suggested that she plan to "take the canal boat from Pittsburgh," that she would like it much better than a land journey.

Few people realize today that Pennsylvania once had a system of canals, connected in a few places by railroads, which could take travelers all the way across the state. Certainly, as Hyman suggests, the ride on a canal boat must have been much smoother than anything the roads of the era could offer.

The canals of Pennsylvania, dug (for the most part) during the building boom following the success of the Erie Canal, were soon completely superseded by railroads. A map of the state's canal system appears on the website of the Pennsylvania Canal Society.

(The letter from Hyman Gratz to Rebecca, dated Sept. 15, 1835, is found in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Portrait of Washington Irving

I finished the previous post without sharing one of the young Washington Irving's important attributes: he was a bit of all right. How annoying it must have been for Rebecca's prospective suitors to see her obviously enjoying the company of another, and more handsome, young man.

This portrait, now in the collection of Historic Hudson Valley, Tarrytown NY, was painted in 1811 by John Wesley Jarvis. In January of that year, Irving and his friend Henry Brevoort visited Philadelphia where Rebecca reported, "They are pleased with everybody and everybody are pleased with them." Washington must have been sitting for the portrait at this time because Rebecca says that he had refused to show the painting to the Gratz family and intended to have it altered on his return to the city. By May the portrait must have been completed to his liking because it was part of a large exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Rebecca wrote to Maria Fenno Hoffman: "Tell Washington all the belles at the exhibition commended his picture....he is a great favorite." Along with "the belles," Irving liked this image of himself (as who would not): the painting hung at Sunnyside, his home in Tarrytown NY, during his lifetime.

(Rebecca's January 1811 letter is from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society, and the one from May is from the New York Historical Society.)

Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz & an Unwanted Suitor

Rebecca Gratz's romance with Samuel Ewing, a Presbyterian, ended with her refusal to marry him because of the difference of religion. This is the stuff of legend. Yet, if Rebecca was so charming and lovely, you might think that she would have had at least one other suitor, and you would be correct.

Isaac and Reyna Moses of New York City, old friends of Rebecca's parents, had three sons just the right age (five to ten years older) for the three Gratz sisters still at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The young men looked great on paper, scions of a wealthy Jewish family well-known to the Gratz's and already active in the family business. But somehow they did not please the Gratz girls.

Rebecca had spent the winter of 1805-06 in low spirits, having broken with Ewing the previous August, and in April of 1806 her family eagerly sent her off to visit her best friend Maria Fenno Hoffman in New York for a change of scene. About three weeks after she arrived, Rebecca received a letter from her younger sister Rachel who had urgent news from a friend: M.L. (short for Moses Levy), the middle Moses son, was upset because several evenings before at Maria's house, Washington Irving had come in just as he was about to propose to Rebecca. Rachel knew that Rebecca had no interest in this proposal and worried that M.L. would interfere with the her sister's enjoyment of New York. Her advice to Rebecca for avoiding another attempt: "Keep Washington with you as you have done before" [my emphasis].

When Maria Fenno had married Josiah Ogden Hoffman in 1802, Washington Irving was desultorily studying law in Hoffman's office, and although he had little talent for legal matters, he had other gifts -- conversation, charm, good humor--which made him a welcome guest at the Hoffman home. In the spring of 1806, Irving had just returned from eighteen months in Europe and it was at this time that he was introduced to Rebecca.

For her part, Rebecca was delighted with Irving, calling him "the most pleasant young man I have met" in New York. Elsewhere she gave an expanded description of him at a social gathering: Mr. Irving, she wrote, "made puns -- told stories -- wrote poetry... he became quite agreeable to the whole party." Washington provided the liveliness and fun which Rebecca needed. There is no hint of romance on either side. As Maria Fenno Hoffman's close friend, Irving would have been informed about Rebecca's recent romantic history. Besides, he was two years younger than Rebecca and without a profession. In this situation the two could quickly settle into a relaxed relationship, unimpeded by the uncertainties which could blight budding friendships between men and women.

All this must have happened quickly if they were already partners in deception against M.L. (and possibly other unwanted suitors). Irving was too socially adept not to realize that Rebecca was sometimes using him as a shield and was gallant enough to spare a kind young woman from unwanted attentions she could not politely avoid by herself. In years to come their friendship would continue in New York and also at the Gratz house in Philadelphia. It was a very real relationship, better characterized as cordial than as intimate. The legend of Rebecca Gratz as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Scott's Ivanhoe rests on the undocumented story that Irving vividly described her to Walter Scott whom he visited in 1817. He was certainly capable of doing that -- whether he did or not is another question.

As for poor M.L., he never married. In a letter from 1802 Rebecca gives us a strong hint as to why she was not interested in him when she tactfully describes his enthusiasms: [M.L] "is certainly the most romantic young man in the boro. He constantly keeps sacking his imagination for omens and wonders--where other people would see nothing extraordinary." "Romantic" here is not "flowers and candy" romantic. This was the Romantic Age, and one of the earliest emanations of the romantic sensibility was an interest in the supernatural (omens, ghosts, etc.). Rebecca was more comfortable in the Age of Reason. Her highest compliment about Samuel Ewing was that he was a "sensible, agreeable companion" although she also added that he was "rather romantic." Rebecca found a little romanticism acceptable in an essentially rational man, but the thought of spending one's life with a man whose major interests in were omens and ghost stories must have been most unappealing to her.

(Rebecca's letters from 1806 are from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Her letters from 1802 are from the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dancing Assemblies & Dances

A series of subscription balls given throughout the social season, dancing assemblies first appeared in England and migrated to America during the colonial period. They were very popular on both sides of the Atlantic because they made large dances possible for participants at a fraction of the cost of having a ball at home. (Few people in Philadelphia had enough space for a large dance anyway.) To organize a dancing assembly a group of well-to-do men each paid the prescribed subscription fee. From their number, they chose several managers who would set the dates for the dances and choose the venue, catering and music for the season. Each subscriber received season tickets for himself and for the women (18 or older) in his family. All other men had to pay to get in, and the price was high enough to discourage the working class.

The first dancing assembly in Philadelphia was in 1748. It is a marker of the city's ease with diversity that among the subscribers were David Franks and Nathan Levy, prominent Jewish merchants. Philadelphia tolerance is usually traced to its first Quaker settlers, but since Quakers did not dance, the openness of the assemblies indicates that members of other sects had adopted Pennsylvania's welcoming policies.

The Assemblies were not the only dances. The Gratz's had room enough to hold a small dance at their house, and Rebecca reported on dances at the homes of friends. There were also Bachelors' Balls, for which a group of unmarried men clubbed together to organize a dance for their friends in a rented venue.

Like the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth Bennett met Mr. Darcy at the local dancing assembly), the Gratz sisters longed for a dance. Or as Rebecca put it, dances were "anticipated with delight for a week -- and then enjoyed with a zest of true pleasure."

In later years Rebecca wistfully remembered her youthful enjoyment. When she was forty and trying to persuade her young sister-in-law Maria, Ben's wife, to come to Philadelphia for the season, she wrote, "If you were here I should buckle on my old finery again for the pleasure of accompanying you [to the Dancing Assembly]...[although to me] a ball room seems more like a memorial of lost pleasures than an incitement to new ones."

Even in her 60's Rebecca was still attending balls, albeit out of duty rather than for pleasure. In 1844 she wrote of a ball to benefit the Hebrew charitable societies with which she was associated. The managers had insisted on her going because "so many of the genteel Jewesses decline," a hint at the social friction between the old Philadelphia Jewish families and the newer immigrants. More likely, however, is that the organizers wanted Rebecca because she was considered the most genteel Jewess in the city, as the reputed inspiration for the character of the immaculate Rebecca of York in Scott's immensely popular novel Ivanhoe. Always responsible, she concluded that she would go "to prove that I recognize the obligation conferred on the societies to be benefited by it."

(The information about dancing assemblies is drawn from a number of histories of Philadelphia, but the most detailed source is Thomas Willing Balch's The Philadelphia Assemblies, published in 1916. Rebecca's youthful joy in dances is from an 1807 letter in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. Her wistful memories are published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, and the letter about her dutiful attendance later in life, dated January 21, 1844, is from the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Lost Portrait of Rebecca

Almost immediately after Sully finished Rebecca's first portrait in 1830 (see the post dated Oct. 6, 2009), Hyman Gratz, her brother, commissioned another. Since the two lived under the same roof, Hyman did not need two pictures of his sister. Perhaps the second painting was to be a gift for another brother and his wife who lived in Kentucky, Benjamin and Maria Gratz.

According to Sully's records, this second painting was erased, and Fielding and Biddle, Sully's biographers, report that there was a Gratz family story that the portrait was rejected "on account of a turban or other head-dress painted in the portrait by the artist."

Now this is odd. I don't think most portraitists added something as important to a painting as headgear, without the prior consent of the sitter. So why the surprise for the woman who was after all Sully's first Philadelphia patron?

I think the answer lies in the specificity of the word "turban" in the story. Turbans had been popular with women from the 1790's on, and this particular type of head covering was not unusual in female portraits of the period. (To see some of the styles of turban then current, go to www.lynnmcmasters.com.) But for Rebecca Gratz the turban had special significance. By 1830 she was identified in the public mind with the character Rebecca in Scott's popular novel Ivanhoe. Guess what the fictional Rebecca wears in her first scene: a yellow turban.

Sully probably thought he was offering a compliment to Rebecca Gratz by recognizing her as the inspiration for the character. But the family saw that it would be taken as a symbol of her vainglory, that people would think that she dressed up like the character in the book to remind everyone (and posterity too) that she was the real Rebecca of Ivanhoe. Such a painting would have been considered to be in the worst possible taste, and it is no wonder the Gratz's wanted it destroyed.

There exist, however, two paintings by Sully -- both of women in yellow turbans -- which are usually identified as Rebecca Gratz, despite the fact that neither bears much resemblance to her. While one of them may be the "erased" painting, reworked to not look like Rebecca, Sully would have been taking a chance in reusing it: should the Gratz's have ever heard of or seen it, they would have been deeply offended.

If my theory is true, any painting of a woman in a yellow turban is not Rebecca Gratz. The two pictures are probably from among Sully's "fancy paintings," as he called his works which were not portraits.

(I am not showing the two "woman in a turban" paintings here. Images of them are available on the internet [Try searching "Rebecca Gratz" on Google Images]. The one reproduced in black and white has the face of a little girl. If you view the other painting, which is in color, you will see a woman wearing a rather silly version of a turban, one I haven't found in fashion illustrations of the era, and in a pose unlike any among Sully's many portraits. Given the fashion sense Rebecca exhibited in her previous portrait, I don't see her as a sensible woman of fifty agreeing to wear such a getup. Note also the reddish curls at the nape of the woman's neck. I found a small envelope among the Rebecca Gratz letters at the Library of Congress. On it were written her name and the date Aug. 27, 1869, the day she died. Inside were several strands of hair, raven black in color, just as it is in the authenticated portraits by Sully and all eye-witness descriptions of Rebecca.)
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