A Guide to the Sargent House Portraits: Installment 1
by Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard with Barbara W. Silberman
Western culture tends to value easel painting as the height of art, but in colonial America, this was not so. Colonials preferred objects that were useful as well as beautiful. This is well-documented in anecdotal comments, inventories, relative cost, and survivorship of objects. A painting and a silver teapot cost about the same, and most families who had a choice opted for the latter.
Yet, as America’s regent class aspired to patrician status and wished to have their features recorded for posterity, some elites in society did commission portrait likenesses, and important painters began to emerge. Among the prominent names of these artists are: John Singleton Copley (1737-1815), James Frothingham (1786-1864), Francis Alexander (1800-1881), Henry Sargent (1770-1845), Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) and Stuart’s daughter, Jane (c.1812-1888), Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), and later Henry Bacon (1839-1912).
This multi-installment guide will take a look at works by these important artists found in, or closely associated with the collection of the Sargent House Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Of course, this survey will include Judith's Great-great-grandnephew, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), whose engaging portraits of his parents, FitzWilliam and Mary, are on display. John Singer Sargent loved the House and helped to preserve it in the early part of the Twentieth Century, donating many works of art and items which visitors continue to enjoy.
We begin our tour with a portrait of the wife of the first owner of the house, Judith Sargent Stevens, whose formal title—in the parlance of the day—would be “Mrs. John Stevens.” Judith Sargent was born in Gloucester on May 1, 1751, the eldest child of Winthrop Sargent, a prominent Gloucester merchant, and his wife Judith (Saunders) Sargent. Judith married Captain John Stevens in 1769 when she was eighteen years old. This portrait was likely commissioned in celebration of this happy event, paid for by her father, Winthrop Sargent.
|Judith Sargent Stevens by John Singleton Copley.|
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The giclée print you (will) see here takes the place of the original piece, painted by the much-coveted period portraitist John Singleton Copley. The original canvas measures 50 x 40 in. (127.0 x 101.6 cm), Copley’s standard dimension for three-quarter length poses. The exquisitely-rendered painting was handed down through the family for several generations until it was sold to the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago in the year 2000. Fitting for a masterpiece, Copley’s “Judith” originally hung in the “Best Parlor,” the showplace of the Gloucester manse.
Copley was a meticulous painter, and a master of keen observation—he is known to have spent ninety hours on one portrait. Judith mentions the attainments of Copley as a portrait painter in her correspondence. In particular, she remarked on a painting he had done of Lord Chatham while the artist was in England.
In the early portrait we can see how clearly her intelligence, earnestness and beauty are captured by the master. A woman ahead of her time, Judith was not content with contemporary education for women. She witnessed her brothers, Winthrop and Fitz William, receiving a classical education at home. Meanwhile Judith’s only teacher—whom she described as “an Ancient woman”—ended her formal studies with some rudiments of reading and writing. The boys, on the other hand, later went on to attend Boston Latin and Harvard. According to her own letters, a precocious Judith frequently listened in on their lessons, and diligently read all the books at her disposal. It was clear to her from early on that she—and, by extension, all girls—were perfectly capable of attaining the same intellectual achievements as boys. Education was the key to success.
Judith was very concerned with the education of young people, girls in particular, and wanted them to have the same educational opportunities as their male counterparts. While Judith Sargent did not bear any children during her eighteen years of marriage to John Stevens, she did take into her home orphaned nieces of John’s, Anna (Plummer) O’Dell arrived on December 1, 1780, followed by her sister Mary. Judith became very attached to the girls during the years they were under her care, raising them, educating them and laying plans for the girls' future as if the children were her own. Later she took in her own niece, Polly O’Dell, and cared for her in the same fashion.
During this same period of time, in her twenties, Judith Sargent embarked on a literary career: an unusual feat for a woman of that period. Her first essay to be published, Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms, appeared in the Massachusetts Magazine in 1784. It was followed by a succession of essays culminating in the publication of a three volume set entitled The Gleaner which Judith self-published in 1798. Subscribers, 729 in all, helped pay for the printing. Among them were George and Martha Washington, President John Adams and John Hancock. The essays included in The Gleaner contained clear statements of Judith's views on the equality of women, propriety, class distinction, patriotism, religion, and the theater. Judith Sargent had initially published her views on the issue of female equality in an article entitled On the Equality of the Sexes that appeared in the Massachusetts Magazine in 1790.
Judith’s predilection for great thoughts is but hinted at by Copley’s heightening of her forehead, bathed in light—a beautiful metaphor for intellectual prowess. Her garden location, in loose deshabillé and modish purple turban swathed in ropes of pearls would allude to both her maidenhood (she was newly married when this was painted) and her continental stylishness; an indication that Judith was both dependent and independent—a complex figure. The dress, a mode appearing in eight Copley portraits, is a modified turquerie—an uncorseted torso, loose hair ornamented with pearls and a rich, lavender turban. The rage for such fashions derives from the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an Englishwoman who wrote of Turkish dress and customs in her letters. The widely-circulated letters were posthumously published in London in 1763, and quickly republished in the colonies due to popular curiosity of American women in the interests of their European sisters. Judith’s general demeanor is that of a self-possessed and confident young woman.
One should also mention that Judith was the only individual to have ever been painted by both Copley and Gilbert Stuart. Stuart, a staunch Federalist, also painted portraits of Judith’s brother, Winthrop, and Judith’s daughter, Julia Maria.
Gilbert Stuart was a famed New England painter from Rhode Island, whose sitters included European kings, six American presidents, and prominent citizens. Stuart's George Washington portrait is still featured on the United States dollar bill. By the end of his career, Gilbert Stuart had taken the likenesses of over one thousand American political and social figures, likely because he made sitting for him a pleasure.
"Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation."— John Adams
Judith sat for her portrait by Stuart around 1806; she was approximately fifty-five years old. By this time she and John Murray had been married for twenty or so years. Judith knew the Stuarts personally, including Jane, and mentions them in her letters. For example:
Letter 503 To my Mother, 7/30/1786
“…in Providence---At that place we were most cheerfully welcomed---An honest Hibernian our host, and he delighted to exercise the characteristic Virtue of his nation---His name is Stewart [sic], a remote branch of the family of the royal martyr---their Ancestors were common---He possesses a large estate in the Town of Providence---His Companion is an American---a good motherly Woman, and they have three children.”
|Mary McIntosh Sargent copy|
after Gilbert Stuart by Jane Stuart (?)
Photo by Sargent House Museum
|Winthrop Sargent copy after Gilbert Stuart|
by Jane Stuart (?)
Photo by Sargent House Museum
The other portraits you see here are Governor Winthrop Sargent (1753-1820), the elder of Judith’s two brothers, and his second wife Mary McIntosh Sargent (1764-1844). The originals of these works were painted by Gilbert Stuart and reside in the Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room of the U.S. Department of State; these are copies attributed to the artist’s daughter, Jane Stuart (though this has not been confirmed). The museum displays several pieces of furniture and personal effects that belonged to Winthrop and his wife, Mary, including the mahogany breakfront and wine cooler in the Common Parlor (Dining Room) and four poster bed that rests in Judith's bedroom, directly upstairs.
 Angela Miller, American Encounters (Prentice Hall, 2008), 120.
 Miller, 120.
 Previously, the portrait had been privately owned and not accessible to the public. In 2007, Copley’s Portrait of Judith moved to the Art Institute of Chicago.
 Miller, 121.
 As Sheila Skemp relates, “The record concerning Anna and Mary is fuzzy. Even Anna’s last name is unknown—it was either ‘Plummer’ or ‘O’Dell.’ Sometimes Judith referred to both girls as her nieces; other times she implied that only Anna was related to John.” Skemp, First Lady of Letters, p. 412, n. 23.
 Miller, 123.
 Miller, 122. Cf. the portrait of Mrs. Thomas Gage (Margaret Kemble Gage), 1771. O/c, 50 x 40”, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego.
 Miller, 123.
 Bonnie Hurd Smith, Letters of Loss and Love (Hurd Smith Communications, 2009), p. 468.
 Richard McLanathan, Gilbert Stuart (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1986), 147.
 Bonnie Hurd Smith, Letters of Loss and Love (Hurd Smith Communications, 2009), p. 24.
 Bonnie Hurd Smith, Letters of Loss and Love (Hurd Smith Communications, 2009), p. 173.