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Examining Colonial Portraits with Boldt and Ackermann

Oct 28, 2020

Janine Yorimoto Boldt, PhD, shared her lecture, More than Meets the Eye: Complicating the Histories of Colonial Portraits, with Daniel Ackermann, PhD, for the Decorative Arts Trust’s October Trust Talk. Janine’s lecture featured two 18th-century portraits: one painted in 1716 of Lucy Parke Byrd (1688-1716); and the other, a 1772 portrait of George Washington.

Each painting offers many avenues for research, discussion, and interpretation. In her lecture, Janine used the portraits to consider the ways diverse peoples have influenced American art. Through her work, she urges us to consider how we can think more inclusively about colonial portraits.

The lecture began with an analysis of the Lucy Park Byrd portrait. Lucy lived the majority of her life in colonial Virginia, and this likeness was painted in 1716 while she was in England visiting her husband, William Byrd. Janine’s presentation concentrated on details in the painting, including the depiction of an enslaved attendant and a basket almost certainly made by a Southeast indigenous woman, which reflect the role of diverse peoples in colonial America. Janine concluded her discussion of the painting saying, “The whole portrait is a colonial and imperial painting that attempts to visualize and naturalize a social order in which white colonists were superior to nonwhite peoples.”

The 1772 portrait of George Washington also addresses Anglo-Indian relations. In the second half of her lecture, Janine argued that this early depiction of George Washington was constructed around the idea that the American West needed “civilizing.” This painting was created prior to Washington’s rise to prominence and was the first time he was painted by Charles Willson Peale at Mount Vernon. Commissioned by Martha Washington, it was intended to be a family portrait. Washington is depicted in front of a landscape that evokes the Ohio River Valley and in front of what Boldt argues are distant teepees. Janine stated, “What we see in this first portrait of Washington is a man intent on gaining indigenous land, a man so obsessed with Western expansion that he chose to include a Western landscape in his only portrait and to memorialize himself as part of the militia that fought in the Ohio River Valley to gain those lands.” These details provide the opening to complicate the traditional narrative around George Washington.

After her presentation, Janine was joined by Daniel Ackermann, who came to us live from the colonial portrait galleries at the Museum of Early American Southern Decorative Arts. They discussed how to contextualize these paintings as objects within their respective environments and offered ideas on the family members and guests who walked by the portraits and experienced them firsthand. Janine also shared primary documents that illuminated how enslaved labourers and native peoples interacted with colonial portraits.

The program finished with questions from the audience. Janine and Daniel addressed the textile held by the enslaved laborer in Lucy Byrd’s portrait as well as the 500-plus entries in the database of Virginia portraiture Janine created.

View the program recording on our YouTube channel:

The Trust’s calendar of events shows upcoming Trust Talks and other virtual and in-person programs. For updates on registration openings, sign up for our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. The Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that appreciates the involvement of members and donors who make programming like this possible. This program was generously supported by the Marie and John Zimmermann Fund.

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