Mabel Ruggles Canfield. Oil on canvas by Ralph Earl, 1796. Litchfield Historical Society, 1917.4.4
In three weeks, I start a three week cycle of events in different decades: Saratoga in 1777 will be followed by Boston in 1763, followed by Providence in 1800. This causes a kind of temporal whiplash, though I know well enough what I should wear for 1777 and 1763, and Mr S’s brown coat will cut out this week so I can begin to sew on Saturday.
Providence in 1800 worries me more, but last Saturday’s conversation with Sharon helped immensely, especially when she said, Think Ralph Earl. So simple, I was embarrassed not to have remembered one of my favorite painters.
I need to think below Ralph Earl’s sitter’s station, but as Mrs Brown’s housekeeper or bossiest maid, these portraits represent the type of people I see, people who live in Providence but aren’t the Browns. Ralph Earl’s world of Connecticut merchants and ministers is much like the world I would see. How much more cosmopolitan was Providence than Stonington or New London? They’re all ports, and Providence is busier, but I think that Ralph Earl is a safe bet for understanding the visual context of the southern New England in the 1790s and the styles people wore.
It is especially helpful because he painted women of about the right age. Mrs Canfield at the top of te page was born in 1760, so she’s just a little younger than my character.
Oiver Ellsworth and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth. Oil on canvas by Ralph Earl, 1792. Wadsworth Atheneum, 1903.7
Mrs Ellsworth was born in 1756, so she’s a little bit older. Different ages, different styles (yes, styles have also changed between 1792 and 1796). But some constants: long, slim sleeves. White caps and handkerchiefs, layered at the neck. Silk–though that won’t be me–in solid, slightly muted colors.
There’s another Connecticut painter worth looking at: John Brewster, Jr. In this New Republic period, I think it’s really critical to look to American sources for clues to how people projected themselves, how they were seen and wanted to be seen. This is pretty high-falutin’ stuff for a maid, but I’m presuming that I know how to read (because John Brown and his brothers placed an emphasis on education in their own families, and on public education). And if I know how to read, and I work in a house with books and political discussions, chances are good that even in the late 18th century, I have eavesdropped on the discussions and I have read at least the newspapers. I’m living in a certain atmosphere, and how I dress and what I think about will reflect the world around me.
John Brewster and Ruth Avery Brewster. Oil on canvas by John Brewster, Jr. ca. 1795-1800. Old Sturbridge Village.
Dr. John Brewster, seen here with his second wife, Ruth, descended from William Brewster. His wife, Ruth, is obviously literate. These people are signaling education and sensibility to us: sober, well to do, respectable. Brewster is not as good a painter as Ralph Earl, so fabric is harder to read. What is her gown made of? Could be fine wool, could be silk: hard to tell. But see that little edge of shift peeking below that three-quarter sleeve? That’s old school for 1795. But I like the neckline and the color. Burnley & Trowbridge have a light-weight wool that color…
Mother with Son (Lucy Knapp Mygatt and Son, George), 1799. Oil on canvas by John Brewster, Jr. Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University
Brewster’s portrait of Lucy Knapp Mygatt and her son, painted in 1799, does, I think, help push the date for the Brewster double portrait earlier: by 1799, the painter in more accomplished and bolder in the full-length portrait. He’s also learned to render fabric somewhat more convincingly.
Long sleeves, white cap and kerchief, high waistline: the styles are consistent, but as you move through the subtleties of class, the expression of the style shifts. Front-closing round gown with a waistline that’s high, but lower than what I’ve made in the past, with long sleeves: settled. Now all I need to decide upon is fabric: probably a lightweight, dark-colored wool, though I haven’t found exactly what I want yet.