Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Portrait of Miriam Gratz

In 1802 Miriam Gratz, Rebecca's mother, acceded to the requests of her children that she have her portrait painted. Rebecca went with her for her first sitting and wrote to her friend Maria Fenno about the experience. From a position "behind Stewart's chair" (that would be Gilbert Stuart she's talking about) she marveled "to see a countenance so dear to my heart appear on a board which but a few minutes before was a...piece of mahogany." She was struck by the resemblance and animation she saw in the work.

Miriam Gratz died suddenly in 1808, leaving her family in profound grief. Her husband Michael had suffered from depression for years, then sustained a stroke in 1800 from which he made a very partial recovery. He was as dependent on her as any of her children. Rebecca wrote to Maria in 1809: "We have indeed shut up our greatest treasure, the portrait of our beloved Mother, but we often visit it to weep over features too deeply graven on our hearts to require even the painter's skill to preserve. When first we were deprived of this best of parents I daily visited her picture, and felt that my only consolation was to gaze on it. But one day my father went into the room and was so overcome by looking at it, that we determined to sacrifice our wishes of having it constantly before us and close the room where it hangs."

(Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Miriam Gratz is in private hands, and I have not found a photograph of it. The Rosenbach Museum and Library has a copy of the painting by Jane Cooper Sully Darley, not currently on view. To see a reproduction of the Darley version, go to the Loeb Database of Early American Jewish Portraits on the website of the American Jewish Historical Society. The first of the two letters quoted in this post is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress; the second from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

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