18th century, 18th century clothes, art history, authenticity, baskets, Costume, dress, fashion, interpretation, John Copley, john smibert, Joseph Blackburn, portraits, Research
Gentle Reader: Remember the post on semiotics? We need to go back to that once more.
Just what are we looking at here?
John Singleton Copley.
Portrait of Mrs. Daniel Rogers (Elizabeth Gorham Rogers), 1762
50 X 40, oil on canvas.
Middleton Collection, Wake Forest University
Hmm…. 1762. Does that dress look like 1762 to you? Or does it resemble a 17th century garment? Check out those sleeves: scallops. The shift sleeves: super full. The line of the gown at the neck: a shallow scoop. The front of the bodice: closed.
Are those the hallmarks of a typical 1762 gown in New England, England, or France? You are correct, sir: They are not.
What’s happening here? What is Copley doing, and why?
He’s making his subject look good, reflecting her wealth and status. He’s flattering her by painting her in a faux-17th century gown, a “Vandyke costume, a popular artistic convention in England related to the vogue for fancy dress and masquerade.”* 1762 seems a trifle late for this convention, but in 1757, James McArdell produces a mezzotint of Thomas Hudson’s portrait of the Duchess of Ancaster. Henry Pelham wrote to Copley in 1776 that he had purchased one of those mezzotints, suggesting their use as references for Colonial American painters. Reynolda House has a nice explication of this style of dress in the Thëus portrait they own of Mrs. Thomas Lynch, shown below.
There was also a convention of portraying women in “timeless draperies,” following the school of Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller, both late 17th-century English painters who produced portraits with generalized costumes.
This portrait by Kneller (born in Germany, he worked in England) explains a lot, doesn’t it? And this timeless convention persists for some time, and the stylization of the facial features and hair is copied by English and colonial American painters. John Smibert, long familiar to many of you, was a leading practitioner of this style of portrait, and his work would have been well known to Copley and his sitters.
Blackburn’s portrait of Mary Sylvester adopts two conventions at once, in a way: she’s in timeless-style drapery and fancy dress as a shepherdess. Let’s remember, too, that there’s symbolism in the shepherdess imagery, referencing pastoral innocence and Mary Sylvester’s unmarried, presumably virginal, status. Don’t believe me? Read the catalog entry, written (at the very least) under the supervision of actual, degree-toting art historians.
Where does that leave us with Mrs. Rogers? She’s portrayed in what is essentially fancy dress, holding her straw hat in her left hand (much as Mary Sylvester is) with a basket over her right forearm. You will note the open work of the basket, the delicate arches and the fineness of the base. What’s in it? Something gauzy, as light as the drape around her shoulders, with a square of dark blue silk and a fine white silk ribbon. Honestly I am not entirely certain — the resolution of the image is dreadful.
But what’s NOT in the basket? A redware or pewter mug, sewing, keys, bottle, food, candy, toys, or, really, anything of a very concrete or practical nature.
Is this image a justification for carrying a [nearly empty ] basket on the streets of Boston? Of course it is–as long as you justify walking the streets of Boston in imaginary or fancy dress.
*p.106, Ribeiro, Aileen. “‘The Whole Art of Dress’: Costume in the Work of John Singleton Copley.” John Singleton Copley in America, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.
Nancy N said:
So, and I’m not being disingenuous here.. What did middle class ladies use to carry their shopping? Two summers ago I had to put together clothes for Merry Wives, and they were headed out of the house to… do something sneaky… But pretending to shop. Should they have little canvas rucksacks, or what? When we see period films with women going to those yearly spring markets in big muddy fields with a basket on the arm, are they being historically off the charts?
Help those of us stuck in the hinterlands, so to speak, when it comes to re-enacting!!
That’s a great question, Nancy. But here’s the thing: they didn’t carry the shopping, because they didn’t do the shopping– not the big shopping, anyway. La Pourvoyeuse by Chardin shows a woman returning from market in 1739. No basket. A bundle or bag with a fowl in it, head down. Unwrapped loaves of bread. But clearly a servant.
From waste books, it’s pretty clear that people are sending their “boys” and “girls” (servants or slaves) to fetch liquor. That will come home in bottles, like the ones at the feet of La Pourvoyeuse. And I think it comes home just in their hands, but perhaps- and more likely not– in a basket. A floppy basket, usually for floppy birds. Baskets have come up before. So this is part of a larger argument. Mostly, we see servants marketing. Middle class ladies certainly shop– what is the class level of this woman?— but so many things can be delivered, or are peddled door-to-door, and servants are so common, that I think we don’t yet fully understand shopping in the 18th century.
After the meteoric rise of consumerism, after department stores, yes: shopping is more like what we do. But in the pre-ice box and pre-packaged era, meat cannot be bought and frozen, and milk will not last all that long. Things are brought home one at a time, or a few at a time, many times a week. And middle class ladies buy small things– ribbons, almanacks, shoes– and bring them home in their pockets, just in their hands, or, I would guess, wrapped in a bundle of paper (a pair of shoes) or in a band box (a bonnet) if the things are not delivered.
A long winded way to say, I don’t know but I’m pretty sure middle class ladies sent their servants out frequently so the ladies didn’t carry baskets and the servants used bags, aprons, and their hands.
Nancy N said:
Wow, this is so helpful, and of course makes so much sense! I kinda forgot about the “everybody’s gotta have a maid” situation in previous centuries, despite years of reading historic novels… The Wives in the Shakespeare play are very prosperous, and I’m sure would have loads of servants to do whatever (we, not being a rich theater company did NOT have many actors in unspeaking roles!) and of course it’s a status thing not to have to schlep your stuff. My grandma who lived in Philly in the early 1900s talked about the many tradespeople who came door to door –the ice man, the garbage collector, the scissors grinder, old clothes man, and the ubiquitous milkman.
Your paragraph above really makes me want to take one of your courses!!! Many thanks,
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