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American Paintings and Sculpture
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Artist: Unknown

Mary Stiles (later Mary Stiles Holmes, 1767–1795)


Oil on wood

3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm)
Gift of Elmer D. Keith, B.A. 1910
This unusual portrait is an oil painting on wood, mounted on the inside lid of a wooden box that possibly dates later than the likeness. Mary was the daughter of Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College from 1777 until his death in 1795. This portrait was painted in the fall of 1775 on the verge of the War of Independence. The Stiles family was living in Newport, Rhode Island, which was seized by the British the following year. A few months before Mary’s eighth birthday in August, Stiles wrote that his “pious and good wife has been this day setting her house in order, and giving her children her dying counsel and Advice.” Mary’s mother died a few days later. This portrait of eight-year-old Mary, inscribed with her name, age, and the date, was perhaps painted to commemorate her mother’s memory or to celebrate her survival of an illness after her mother’s death, an interpretation supported by Mary’s shorn hair and the opening rosebud held in her hand. Although a common motif in mourning imagery, a rosebud could also symbolize youth and life. Even though the portrait was painted only a few months after her mother’s death, Mary is not wearing mourning dress. According to Stiles, his wife had requested that “her friend’s shd put on no Mourning,” so that “Agreeable to her Desire neither I nor my family wore any Mourning.” In 1790 Mary married the Reverend Abiel Holmes, pastor of the First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she suffered from “feeble health” and died in 1795, childless, at the age of twenty-eight.
Made in United States
On view*
18th century
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.