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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