Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sully's Second Portrait of Rebecca

Thomas Sully was still working on his first portrait of Rebecca in December 1830 when her brother Benjamin and his wife Maria arrived from Lexington KY for what would be a six-month visit. The Philadelphia family realized this would be a great opportunity to commission Sully to paint portraits of Ben, the only sibling living far from home, and his wife, who was a great favorite with her brothers- and sisters-in-law.

Ben had his portrait done in April and Maria probably about the same time. The experience and the outcome must have been good because Maria decided she wanted a portrait of Rebecca, her favorite sister-in-law and good friend, to take back to Kentucky. Rebecca complied with her wishes and sat for her portrait in May and June, 1831.

Rebecca's first portrait by Sully had been what was called a "bust," a painting which showed her from the waist up. For her second, she sat for a "head," a smaller painting like those done of Ben and Maria.

A comparison of Sully's two paintings shows the same features and coloring, but also some major differences. His first portrait is of an elegant woman of the world, one with some flesh on her bones. In the second the sophisticated woman has become angelic, and the lovely transparent collar she is wearing, which must have been an expensive item, appears, not as a symbol of luxe, but as an element which heightens the ethereal looks of the sitter.

A few years after this portrait was painted, Julia Hoffman, the daughter of Rebecca's best friend Maria Fenno Hoffman, was visiting Rebecca in Philadelphia when she wrote to one of her brothers: "Miss Gratz is in good spirits and looks quite handsomely. She is certainly one of the loveliest characters in the world. It is happiness to be with her and be loved by her and I believe we all are." To me, these words describe the image we see in this portrait.

By the way, Rebecca did love the Hoffman children. A few years later, Julia was left penniless at her father's death. Rebecca offered her a home, and Julia came to divide her time for the rest of her life between winters in Philadelphia with Rebecca and summers in the country with her brother George and his family.

(This painting is in the collection of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. In the autumn of 2010, it will travel to the new National Museum of American Jewish History fifteen blocks from the Rosenbach for a nice, long nineteenth-century-style visit. Julia Hoffman's letter from 1835 is the Fenno-Hoffman Papers in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.)

Another blog post of possible interest is A Lost Portrait of Rebecca.

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