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American Paintings and Sculpture
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Artist: Robert Field, British, ca. 1769–1819

Martha Washington (née Martha Dandridge, formerly Martha Parke Custis, 1731–1802)

1801

Watercolor on ivory, in a rose-gold-over-copper locket; reverse: watercolor and hair on ivory with an enameled rim, a cobalt-glass surround, and pearls

2 5/8 × 2 1/8 in. (6.7 × 5.4 cm)
Mabel Brady Garvan Collection
1947.222

During a visit to Mount Vernon in 1801 at Martha Washington’s request, Robert Field painted this portrait, which portrays her as a widow in extended mourning, signified by the black ribbon on her cap. In marked contrast to most American portraitists, whose miniatures were densely painted on small ivory disks, the English Field, who arrived in Baltimore in 1794, brought with him a more luminous technique for limning on a thinner, larger ivory. His refined strokes transcribe the curving contours of her flesh, made still paler by contrast with the brown hatchings in the background. Here, the result is a fragility that underscores the reclusive widow’s age and mood. With affection and insight, Field captured what Martha considered “her everyday face,” one marked with the universal sadness of someone who has lost a life’s partner. Martha gave one of Field’s two portraits of her to her granddaughter, Nelly, but she kept this miniature for herself before eventually giving it to Nelly’s daughter, Frances Parke Lewis, who was just an infant in 1801.

On the miniature’s reverse side, the widow’s gray hair is probably intermingled with that of her deceased husband and incorporated into the scene, constituting the earth beneath the altar to further symbolize the couple’s undying love. A flying Cupid offers a laurel wreath from heaven as a gesture of immortality. Two birds regretfully fly away from each other, clutching in their beaks a ribbon that forms a lovers’ knot, an image interpreted in emblem books to mean, “The farther apart, the closer united.” The tiny scene expresses the triumph of George and Martha Washington’s love over its most formidable foe, death. In keeping with the symbolism in every detail, the outer rim of the locket is adorned with sixty-seven pearls—equal in number to George’s age at the time of his passing. Field’s tender portrayal of Mrs. Washington, painted two years after her husband’s death, allows a uniquely private view of George and Martha as a couple rather than as public icons.

Geography: 
Made in Mount Vernon, Virginia, United States
Status: 
Not on view
Culture: 
American
Period: 
19th century
Classification: 
Miniatures - Jewelry
Provenance: 

Martha Washington; to her great-granddaughter, Frances Parke Lewis (Mrs. E. G. H. Butler); sold with the Lewis collection, with a certificate by Mrs. Butler, to Frank Turner Moorhead, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., 1878; to his widow (and the sitter's great, great, great-granddaughter), Mrs. Kate Upshur Moorhead, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., ca. 1898–1927; to her grandson, John Upshur Moorhead, New York, 1927; Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, to 1947; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.

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.