Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An 1807 Family Portrait for Mother's Day

Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Isabella reporting,

With Mother's Day coming up this weekend, I'm sharing one of my favorite portraits from the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. I love how The Smith Family shows the mother, Rachel King Smith (1774-1823), as the center of both the picture, and their extended family. She looks like an energetic, fun mother, too. How many other 19th c. mothers are depicted so informally, with a child perched on her shoulders?

But what makes this picture extra special is that it's believed to have been painted by her husband, Captain James Smith (1762-1818), a Scottish sea captain who had sailed to India and southeast Asia. From this painting, he clearly loved his wife. According to the painting's placard, the family faced considerable challenges - only five of their nine children survived to adulthood, and there were financial woes as well – which must have made him appreciate her all the more.

Family tradition credits Captain James Smith with having painted this group portrait of his extended family. He included himself, in profile at the upper right. In 1790, the sea captain and merchant settled in Dumfries, Prince William County, Virginia, where he and his family occupied a 600-acre estate called Cedar Grove. A decline in the local shipping industry forced Smith into bankruptcy and relocation. In the fall of 1806, he opened a mercantile store in Richmond, and his family joined him there the following spring. The portrait is thought to have been painted around the time of their reunion.

Happy Mother's Day!

Above: The Smith Family, by Captain James Smith (possibly). Probably Richmond, VA, c. 1807. Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.


Anonymous said...

Oh thank-you, thank-you. I agree. A wonderful, affection-filled image, with a vibrant mother centre-stage.
Marguerite Scott

Lillian Marek said...

What a lovely painting and what a lovely story. Thank you.

Sarah said...

Fascinating. Was it painted for Mother's Day? did America change the date of Mother's Day that early? because Mothering Sunday was originally in March [date determined by phase of moon and Easter] and still is, here in the UK. I have no idea when the American one switched dates.... any ideas?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Sarah - As lovely as it would be to be able to link Mother's Day historically with this painting, I'm afraid it's not possible - the American Mother's Day was first celebrated in 1908, while this painting was done around a hundred years earlier. Still, the legend is that Mr. Smith painted his wife and family to celebrate their reunion, after they had been separated due to financial hardships. That's good reason for the obvious joy in the picture, isn't it? :)

Sarah said...

It's a wonderful reason! and you have also answered a question that puzzled me as to when Mother's Day in America began on the date it now is. I sincerely hope that the Smith family went on to have a wonderful family life!

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