Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Six Degrees of Rebecca Gratz

The United States was so much less densely populated in Rebecca Gratz's day that the linking game of the 19th century would probably have been called "four degrees of separation." For an upper-class woman like Rebecca, two or three degrees were probably all that were necessary to link her to the prominent men and women of her time.

Here are just a few of her many  friends who connected her to the larger world:

William Henry Furness, the minister at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, was a lifelong friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, providing a link to the New England intellectual and literary establishment.  Furness personally introduced Rebecca to theologian William Ellery Channing and the English economist Harriet Martineau, two intellectual lights of the era, when they came to Philadelphia.

Francis Preston Blair, from 1830 a Washington insider, as newspaper editor, founder of the Republican Party and advisor to presidents, was a resource for contacting practically anyone in the federal government.    Rebecca called upon him for help in getting friends and family federal appointments. And when she wanted to get a message to Abraham Lincoln, it was Blair who read it to the president.

Washington Irving and the actress Fanny Kemble connected her to literary and artistic circles in both America and England; Irving, most famously, to Walter Scott.

There are more surprising connections as well.  A few weeks ago, I read a review of a new book, Freedom's Gardener:  James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America, by Myra B. Young Armstead.  Based in part on Brown's diary, the book traces his rise from slavery to freedom as a politically enfranchised citizen, a master gardener for a wealthy family in the Hudson Valley.

Sure enough, there was a Gratz connection.  His employer was the Verplanck family whose estate Mt. Gulian was at Fishkill Landing, about 70 miles north of New York City.  The man who hired him was Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, whose son Gulian married Rebecca's good friend, Eliza Fenno.  The young couple took up residence at Mt. Gulian, and although Eliza died in 1817, well before Brown arrived as gardener,  Rebecca, who always took an interest in the children of her friends, maintained her friendship with Eliza's husband and their family, visiting Mt. Gulian repeatedly.

By 1837, Sara Moses, Rebecca's niece, was already familiar with the estate.  She wrote that she and her aunt were going to visit the Verplanck's at "that most beautiful spot...on the river only a few miles from West Point" and were planning to spend a week there.  Certainly during that time, Rebecca saw and enjoyed Brown's gardens.  And it was just around this stage of her life, that she started to mention her roses in her letters, suggesting that she was either taking a greater interest or had found a new hobby in growing flowers.  It is pleasant to think she might have consulted with James F. Brown on her trips to Mt. Gulian.

(Sara's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Art in America: Nude Statues, 1803

"Art in America would not detain an intelligent Traveller one hour....," John Davis, an English ex-sailor, wrote in a book about his journeys, published in 1803.  His pronouncement was not an unusual one among foreigners who had visited the new nation.

The socially elite young men and women of Rebecca's generation,  the first to grow up as American citizens, smarted under foreigners' criticism. In reaction they developed cultural responsibilities -- to familiarize themselves with the European artistic tradition, foster an appreciation of it in their countrymen and provide American artists with educational resources.

The New York Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1802 to promote classical art.  It began by importing casts of classical sculptures as teaching tools and to be exhibited to the public.

This exhibition was greatly anticipated by Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, the younger sister of Rebecca's best friend, Maria Fenno Hoffman.  Eliza, who was 16 in 1803, had moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1800 with her family.  In a letter from early 1803 she demonstrates her interest in art and a delight in her adopted city:  "The growing greatness of our city would astonish you, the streets swarm with people, our commerce improves daily, and the fine arts will shortly flourish here...."

But she was to be disappointed.  In July 1803 she wrote to Rachel Gratz, Rebecca's younger sister:  "There had been lately a society formed in New York [the Academy of Fine Arts] for the encouragement of the fine arts, and they have imported from France casts of the most celebrated statues which are to be exhibited in a few days at the museum, and of course our sex are to be excluded, as it would shock their delicacy amazingly."

Eliza goes on to suggest sarcastically that only when clothes have been provided for the statues will women be allowed to see them.  But then she breaks cover and blurts, "I must tell you a secret, I have seen them all....Caty [the Fenno's servant] is very well acquainted with Mrs. Savage whose husband keeps the museum and he gave us the key of the door, but this must not be known.  My delight and astonishment you may readily imagine on viewing the copies of those statues of which I had read so many animated descriptions but they surpassed all the brilliant ideas I had formed.  The gratification experienced will last me all my life."

America had its first teenage culture vulture.

While Eliza was comfortable telling her story to Rachel, who was the Gratz sister most capable of such a caper, she did not confide in Rebecca although she also corresponded with her. She seems to have  looked upon Rebecca, who was six years older, as a paragon.  Her only mention of the statuary exhibit to her is a simple statement in a letter the following March that she had gone to see it.

Obviously the men in charge of the exhibit must have changed their minds about its suitability for women, although there were probably restrictions.  Mrs. Trollope, visiting the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1830's, was shocked that men and women viewed the statuary separately.  Perhaps that was the same solution which was offered to women by the New York Academy.

(The letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.  The title of the book by John Davis is Travels of Four and A Half Years in the United States of America.  Frances Trollope's story is in her Domestic Manners of Americans.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Joseph Gratz, the First Troop and the War of 1812

Members of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry visited the Rosenbach Museum & Library on March 4, 2012, to honor their former member Joseph Gratz.

Joseph Gratz (1785-1858), one of Rebecca's younger brothers, was what was once called a "clubbable" man; that is, he was socially adept (not boring) and thus suitable for club membership. In the course of his life Jo would join the Masons, the Athenaeum and the exclusive Philadelphia Club. He was also an officer of his synagogue, a corporate director and on the board of at least one charity -- offices which in those days must have seemed much like being in a men's club.

What might be seen as one of his first clubs was the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, which he joined in 1809, during the unsettled times leading up to the War of 1812. The First Troop, today arguably the oldest military unit in continuous service to the nation, was founded in 1774 by a group of men who already knew each other from various social clubs. It would retain its clubby atmosphere. Where most young men of Jo's social class were interested in obtaining an officer's commission, he preferred to be a private among his friends and peers.

For the first few years in which Jo was a member, the Troop carried out its usual ceremonial assignments (escorting VIPs, for example) and took on a few military duties -- for instance, guarding the arsenal in 1812 when a plot to blow it up threatened. But the War was very far away until the late summer of 1814.

On August 26th, news reached the city that Washington, DC, had been burned, and the fear that the British planned to burn Philadelphia took hold. Committee of Defense was formed to build fortifications, the militia was activated and the First Troop offered its services to Brigadier-General Joseph Bloomfield, commander of the Fourth Military District, Philadelphia.

The Gratz family responded with its characteristic good citizenship. Simon, the eldest brother and the head of the family, participated in the civilian defense effort, as did another brother Jacob. The youngest brother, Benjamin, a second lieutenant in the Washington Guards, marched with his unit to an encampment outside the city at Kennett Square. Jo would go farther afield with the First Troop.

Brigadier-General Bloomfield had immediately assigned vedette duty to the First Troop. (Vedettes, in this case, were mounted troops in outlying areas doing reconnaissance.) Capt. Charles Ross and thirty vedettes, including Jo Gratz, established their headquarters at Mount Bull, near Elkton, MD, where they had a clear view of the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. Lookout posts were set up, patrols organized, relay stations located on the road to the city. Ross's vedettes communicated each day with the encampment at Kennett Square and with Philadelphia. In one of her letters to Jo during this period, Rebecca told him how the children in her neighborhood "watched out for the vedettes."

On September 14th, Charles Biddle, the Chairman of the city's Committee of Defense, wrote to Capt. Ross at Mount Bull that the stagecoach from Baltimore had not arrived the previous evening nor the mail packet that day. He ordered that vedettes take up positions south along the Chesapeake towards Baltimore to learn what they could of the situation there. In fact, on September 13th, the British had begun their bombardment of Fort McHenry. When news of the attack reached Philadelphia, it seemed to confirm the fears that other cities would soon fall victim to the British.

Rebecca Gratz spent this time in a state of anxiety, caring for her sister Sarah who was in the midst of a manic episode and worrying about her brothers on active duty. Nevertheless, she hoped that the family could be reunited for the High Holidays. A letter dated September 28th indicates that Jo and Ben had both been home recently, probably having been given leave for Yom Kippur on the 24th.

The military crisis ended in December when it became clear that after its failure to take Baltimore, the British fleet had sailed away (some ships to Halifax, others to Jamaica) and Philadelphia was out of danger. The First Troop returned to the city on December 12, 1814, ending its service in the War of 1812.

Jo resigned from the Troop when he reached the age of thirty in 1815, but the First Troop would remember him. In 1853, he and the other surviving participants in the Mount Bull Campaign were made honorary members for their service during the War of 1812.

Jo Gratz would be a businessman, active in civic, charitable and Jewish affairs in the city throughout his life and, as mentioned above, a very active clubman. Among his effects, after his death, was a superior wine cellar and numerous boxes of fine cigars, testament to his lifelong attachment to good living and good company.

Today the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry is part of the Pennsylvania National Guard. It has most recently deployed to Bosnia and Iraq and will again deploy in the next twelve months to an active theater of military operations.

(Information about the Troop in the War of 1812 is derived from History of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, issued by the Pennsylvania National Guard, Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry, 1875. Rebecca's letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Happy 231st to Rebecca Gratz

Rebecca Gratz was born on March 4, 1781, six months before the Battle of Yorktown, and died during the Grant administration. She is commemorated for her good works, but today it seems fitting to honor her for her letter-writing.

Rebecca's letters begin in 1798 and end in 1866, spanning the antebellum period and the Civil War. They provide a window into the era from the perspective of an active, intelligent woman close to the center of the nation's social and political life.

This year, I lift a birthday toast to Rebecca, acknowledging her charitable and educational contributions but especially her writings. I also offer a second toast to all those who preserved her letters over two centuries and have thereby given us a wonderful cultural and historical resource for studying America during her lifetime.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Found: The Lost Portraits of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz

Maria Cecil Gist Gratz (Mrs. Benjamin Gratz)
by Thomas Sully. Oil on canvas, Philadelphia, 1831.
Courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum & Library.
Gift of Maria Gratz Roberts. 2011.0023.00l.
Photograph by Douglas A. Lockhard

Last spring Judith Guston, the curator of the Rosenbach Museum & Library, asked me to write a blog post about a painting which neither of us had ever seen: a portrait, by Thomas Sully, of Maria, the wife of Rebecca's brother Benjamin Gratz.

The Museum's interest in this painting began more than 40 years ago when the Rosenbach received a bequest from Ben's granddaughter which included Sully's portrait of Ben, painted in Philadelphia in 1831. The artist's records show that he had also painted Maria at the time, but where was she? Henrietta Clay, who gave the bequest, had heard that the painting existed but had no idea where it was. This is not too surprising because the Kentucky Gratz's are a large family. Miss Clay, a descendant of Ben's second wife (Maria was his first), was in the wrong line of descent to know much about Maria.

In 1984 the Rosenbach received another Gratz bequest, this time from the widow of a descendant of Maria's. She knew the Museum was looking for Sully's painting, and she reported it had already disappeared by the time she married into the family. She gave the Rosenbach a lovely portrait of a youthful Maria, by Matthew Harris Jouett. And she included in her bequest a photo of what she termed "a crayon copy" (a pastel) of the Sully portrait, which I would eventually use in my blog post.

Years passed, and the Maria portrait never made an appearance at auction, with a dealer or in an art publication. So the Rosenbach took a shot with my blog, and it was no sure thing. The portrait could well have been in the hands of someone who did not know the sitter or the painter and would never find my post. Or the painting might turn up in another institution, no longer a possible addition for the Rosenbach.

I published the post at the beginning of June, thinking we should probably give it a year or two. I did not know that a Gratz descendant in Georgia was already acquainted with my blog and checked it from time to time. Three weeks later our curator got a call from Atlanta. Maria Gratz Roberts, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ben and Maria, had the original Sully portrait in her parlor. It had been given to her father by his great-uncle, a grandson of Ben and Maria, no later than 1935. And although Maria Gratz Roberts had lived with the painting throughout her life, she, like us, had the romantic notion that Ben and Maria's portraits should be together again.

What's more, Ms. Roberts proposed that she GIVE the Rosenbach the Sully portrait of Maria, the pastel copy which she also owned and a chair that Ben had brought from Pennsylvania. This incredible generosity was much more than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of our search. I know from my work with the Gratz correspondence how much Rebecca Gratz and her family admired Maria Roberts' great-great-great-grandparents and their happy marriage. It is absolutely fitting that their portraits be reunited. I hope our benefactor will visit the paintings at the Museum and accept our thanks in person.

But wait!  Another descendant contacted the Rosenbach.  The result is this.

Thomas Sully's 1831 portrait of Maria will go on display to the public on Saturday, February 11th, just in time for the Rosenbach's annual Romance Tours which take place that weekend. They will be spotlighting those objects in our collections which have romantic associations -- the portraits of Ben and Maria, a love letter by John Keats, Lord Byron's marriage license and much more. Click here for information about the tours and their times.

If you would like to know more about the artist Thomas Sully, you can get an interesting perspective on his work on Feb. 15th. Carol Soltis, Associate Curator at the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will be giving a talk at the Rosenbach on "Thomas Sully's Ladies: Real, Imagined and Literary." Click here for more information.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Gratz Family: Federalists

Rebecca Gratz, born in 1781, grew up with the American political system. However, she much preferred the Constitution and its ideals to the party politics which developed in its wake.

By the time Rebecca was twelve (in 1793), the first American political parties were taking shape around two founding fathers with conflicting visions of the new nation. Alexander Hamilton, President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, saw an America which could and should take its place beside the European powers. To that end, he supported a national bank to help regulate credit, a navy to protect American shipping and a strong central government to oversee the country's development into a great nation. Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, envisioned America as a wholly new entity, a nation made up of farmers and townsmen, without the large cities, banks, military and centralized government which he saw as sources of corruption. The Gratz family, like the rest of the American mercantile class, most large landowners throughout the country and virtually all of New England, was squarely in the ranks of Hamilton's Federalists. Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans (whom I refer to as Democrats because that is what the Gratz's called them and because theirs was a forerunner of the modern Democratic Party) included the Virginia planters as well as farmers and much of the urban population outside New England.

During the presidential election of 1800, the Gratz's supported Federalist John Adams. The only family member who did not was Rebecca's brother-in-law Reuben Etting in Baltimore. His support for Jefferson was rewarded after the election when the new president made him United States marshal for Maryland, the first federal appointment for an American Jew.

The rest of the family was not happy. Sarah, Rebecca's older sister who was visiting with her sister and brother-in-law in Baltimore during the campaign season, spent evenings in "argumentation" with Reuben, a pastime they both seemed to enjoy. But once the results were in, Sarah expressed her dejection to 19-year-old Rebecca: "Really the triumph of the Democrats makes me feel sad. In this State as well as in ours, they are successful. Shame. Shame. I would not show Reuben your letters for the world" [my italics].

It seems clear from Sarah's comment that Rebecca was quite a partisan herself. Yet her youthful enthusiasm did not last. A few months later, her friend Maria Fenno, railing against Thomas Jefferson (probably because of his heterodox religious views), wrote, "I cannot get reconciled, little as I am a politician, to such a president....You will laugh at me [my italics], I suppose, but I know your feelings are something like mine." Whatever party fervor Rebecca had evinced during the campaign, Maria suspected that her friend had already grown skeptical of the partisan stance.

What might have caused Rebecca to have turned away from party fervor? Perhaps the change had something to do with the political press of the time.

To be continued.

(Sarah's letter about "argumentation" and Maria's letter are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Sarah's post-election comments are from a letter in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Rebecca Gratz Blog in 2011

This is my second annual report (click here for the first), a little public record-keeping, which shows how a blog about an obscure historical figure fares on the internet. This year "Rebecca Gratz & 19th-Century America" received over 2300 visits, up by more than 550 from last year, not surprising since there are more posts to attract hits.

The interesting thing for me this year is that six of the top ten posts include portraits. It strikes me that having as my subject a beautiful woman who had the presence of mind to have three portraits painted -- and had an equally attractive and well-painted family -- has brought me more hits than a figure without the good looks would have garnered. If you happen upon one of the Gratz portraits on the internet, it is difficult not to want to know more. More importantly, the portraits attract those interested in 19th-century American art and the specific artists, as well as the usual researchers concerned with American history, Jewish history, women's history and genealogy.

So here are the top ten posts on the blog this year.

The Rebecca Gratz Club (Aug. '10). Although I have heard from many people who have a familial or personal link to the Club, my guess is that the popularity of this post derives from the fact that the organization's former building (now condos) has "The Rebecca Gratz Club" incised in stone on its facade. Locals and tourists taking a walk through the historic Society Hill section of Philadelphia see the name and want to know more. I would be willing to bet -- I haven't been able to pull up these data from Google Analytics-- that the Rebecca Gratz Club is the subject of more "impulse" searches on smart phones than any other topic covered by this blog.

The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz (Nov. '10). Well, this was a news story in art and museum publications as well as in the local Philadelphia newspapers, and my blog benefited from the increased curiosity about Rebecca.

Domestic Servants in Philadelphia, 1800 (Jan. '11). In this post I was following an interest of mine which was not covered in school when I was young. It seems to be given much more attention today.

Rebecca's brother and sister-in-law, besides being probably the handsomest couple in the Western Hemisphere (the posts include their portraits), have historic interest of their own, at least in Kentucky where they made their home. They are also the progenitors of the Kentucky branch of the Gratz family and therefore a target for descendants' genealogical research.

The Lost Portraits of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz: Have You Seen Maria? (June '11) Another portrait, this time linked with a mystery. Who can resist?

See above.

The Gratz Sisters and Solomon Moses (Apr. '10). This is part of a narrative thread about Rebecca's younger sister Rachel Gratz, her romance and marriage. I think this gets onto the list because of the appearance of the words "Solomon" and "Moses" in the title. People searching for Solomon Moses, Moses Solomon, Rebecca Moses, Rachel Solomon, etc., could all wind up here.

Rebecca and Mixed Marriages (Apr. '11). This post addresses a central issue of the Rebecca Gratz legend: why she refused to marry the Christian man she loved. I check in with my speculations.

Over the past two years, most of the blog's hits have come from the United States, and as of today only one state has not yet been heard from. Come on, Wyoming, there must be one Jewish person, scholar of American painting, or historian of the 19th century living there. I look forward to your appearance in my blog statistics.

Powered by WebRing.