Monday, November 8, 2010

The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz

A little more than a year ago, I was wishing that I could see a color reproduction of Sully's first portrait of Rebecca. The painting was in private hands and had not been exhibited since the 1920's. Starting on November 9, 2010, you can view the original portrait at the Rosenbach Museum & Library which just acquired it (along with a portrait of Rebecca's brother Joseph, by George Peter Alexander Healy) from a Gratz family descendant.

Rereading what I wrote last year about the painting (based on a black-and-white reproduction), I feel that I got it right as far as I went. Now, having seen the portrait, which has an impact much beyond that of the small color reproduction above, I am prepared to go further.

In 1820, Rebecca Gratz at thirty-nine was an "old maid." We know exactly what people thought of unmarried middle-aged women from a poem Rebecca's lost love, Samuel Ewing, wrote in his youth (long before Rebecca would end up as one). In it, he describes a withered, embittered woman, filled with envy, who still practices in front of a mirror accepting the proposal which will never come. Single women were failed women who could not get a man, their empty lives filled with longing.

It was almost impossible for an unmarried woman to escape the stereotype of this slightly ridiculous and pitiful figure, but something close to miraculous happened to Rebecca at this juncture in her life: at the end of 1819 Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe was published and within a few years the story was circulating that Rebecca Gratz was the inspiration for the character of the beautiful Jewish girl Rebecca who was a universal favorite among readers.

In 1830, when Rebecca's family wanted to have her portrait painted, it almost surely was because they wished to preserve an image of the woman thought to be the original for Rebecca in Ivanhoe. Rebecca Gratz agreed to have the painting done, but it is clear she is not sitting as the inspiration for her fictional namesake. If she were, there would have been a reference to the novel -- a volume of Ivanhoe in her hand, perhaps a misty castle or a Gothic window in the background to recall the medieval setting of the novel or some "oriental" style of clothing to connote the eastern origins of her people. (At this time, anywhere east of Italy was considered "oriental.")

No, Rebecca appears as a beautiful woman, filled with vitality and dressed in the height of fashion (an anti-old-maid). Although she never chased after her identification with Rebecca in Ivanhoe, she was probably grateful for it because it caused people to remember and circulate her story. True, she was unmarried, but not because she was a failure who could not get a man: as a young woman, she had turned down the proposal of the man she loved because he was Christian. Her renunciation was seen by both her Jewish and Christian contemporaries as an act of integrity and an admirable example of filial piety. Rebecca Gratz was not simply the raw clay from whom Scott shaped his idealized heroine, she was a heroine herself, and what we see in the portrait is a woman who has overcome suffering, found fulfillment and is very much the hero of her own life.

A few years after the portrait was painted, Rebecca wrote about her niece Sarah Moses, whom she was raising (and who would eventually inherit the painting). Touched by the girl's optimism about the life awaiting her, Rebecca believed that "I...with the memory of many sorrows and disappointments may still encourage her thus far, that if she misses the favorite path to happiness [marriage] she may find another leading to content." Rebecca's life had proved to be anything but bleak and lonely and could be a positive model for other single women.

I have a lively awareness that Rebecca associates marriage with happiness and the alternative of good works with contentment, not quite the same thing. It indicates something of what it cost her to give up Samuel Ewing and suggests a reason why she did not identify with Rebecca in Ivanhoe: the fictional character suffers with surprising serenity through Ivanhoe's marriage to Rowena; Rebecca knew what it felt like to have that kind of experience -- serenity came only after a long struggle.

The newly acquired portraits of Rebecca and Joseph join a number of Gratz family portraits at the Rosenbach, including those of her father Michael Gratz, her brother Benjamin and another portrait of Rebecca, all by Thomas Sully; portraits of her sister and brother-in -law Rachel Gratz and Solomon Moses, by Gilbert Stuart; her sister-in-law Maria Cecil Gist, by Matthew Jouett; a copy of the Sully portrait of her father, by Jane Sully Darley; and a copy of a Stuart portrait of her mother, also by Jane Sully Darley. Most, but not all, are on view. If you have questions about the paintings or about museum hours and admission, use the link above to contact the Rosenbach.

(A letter from a friend asking Rebecca if she is in fact the original of the character in Ivanhoe is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. Ewing's poem "An Old Maid" is from The Philadelphia Souvenir, edited by John Elihu Hall (1826) and is accessible on Google Books. The letter in which Rebecca writes about her niece Sarah is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson, and also on Google Books.)

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous acquisition--I have often thought that what makes portraits even more special are when they can be seen in a context; in this case, the family....Which helps even more to tell a story, of a time not SO long ago...Beth


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