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American Paintings and Sculpture
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Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
PrevNext2 of 2
Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
Artist, attributed to: William Verstille, American, 1757–1803

Mary Otis Bull (1750–1786)

ca. 1786

Watercolor on ivory
Reverse: Watercolor and chopped hair on ivory

1 5/8 × 1 in. (4.1 × 2.5 cm)
Mabel Brady Garvan Collection

In this portrait of Mary Bull, the second wife of businessman Caleb Bull of Hartford, Connecticut, the sitter’s costume provides clues about the year in which William Verstille made the portrait. Several details—the white kerchief, the black neck ribbon, the strikingly large cap topped with a bow—point to popular fashions around the time of the sitter’s death in 1786. Abrasions along the ivory edges serve as evidence that Verstille painted this portrait while Mary was still alive. It appears as though, upon her death, the artist trimmed his recent painting into a mandorla, or almond, shape associated with mourning, added a gravesite vigil on the reverse, and rehoused the ivory disk. On the reverse of this miniature, a man in a minister’s robe kneels in front of Mary Bull’s tomb. The mourner functions at once as a stand in for the husband that she left behind and, as a representative of the clergy, a spiritual conduit for Mary’s passage from life to death. Tiny bits of chopped hair are affixed to the ivory to form the ground, shrubbery, and the tree trunk, while slightly longer pieces of hair re-create the look of pine needles or weeping willow leaves.

The son of a merchant, artist William Verstille moved with his family from Boston to Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1761. While serving in the army during the American Revolution, he painted miniatures of several officers. Verstille worked in Philadelphia from 1782 to 1783; in New York in 1784 and again from 1787 to 1790; and in Connecticut and southern Massachusetts during the 1790s. His account book from the New York period records a miniature he painted of President George Washington and pieces of jewelry and hairwork for Martha Washington.

Possibly made in Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Not on view
18th century
Miniatures - Jewelry
Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.