Sunday, February 17, 2019

Portrait of 18C American Woman - 1750 Millicent Conway Gordon (c 1721-1748)

1750 Millicent Conway Gordon (c 1721-1748) by John Hesselius (1728-1778). Signed and dated “J. Hesselius Pinx/1750” at lower right. VA Hist Soc

Millicent Gordon (born Conway) was born in 1727, at Lancaster County, Virginia, to Colonel Edwin Conway III & Ann Susanna Conway (born Ball). Colonel was born on October 3 1681, in Christ Church, Lancaster, VA. Ann was born on October 3 1686, in Millenbeck, Lancaster, Virginia. Millicent married James Gordon IV in 1742. James was born in 1714, in Sheepbridge, Newry, Down Co., Ireland. He was a merchant, tobacco exporter, planter, & Justice of the Peace. They had 4 children. Millicent passed away on month day 1748, at age 27. James died in 1768.

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture tells us that the Gordon portraits depict the family of an Ulster merchant & planter of Scottish origin who emigrated to Lancaster County in 1738. Through trade with merchants in the British Isles & the West Indies, voracious land purchasing, & active public service, James Gordon quickly rose to prominence, which he celebrated in 1751 by commissioning a sizeable group of large, expensive portraits of himself, his successive wives, his 3 children, & his brother who had emigrated with him. Posed in contemporary clothing before grandiose, artificial settings of an outdated 17C portrait tradition, the sitters seem provincial.  The commission for the Gordon portraits seems to have resulted simply from the sudden availability in Virginia in 1751 & 1752 of a competent artist, either John Hesselius or Robert Feke. Both appeared in the colony at this time; Hesselius emulated the style of the much more accomplished Feke. Hesselius’s practice of the John Wollaston [English-born American Rococo Era Painter, c1710-1775] style in Virginia & Maryland continued until the mid-to-late 1760s, when his work began to shift toward likenesses that were increasingly penetrating & realistic. 

Artist John Hesselius (1728-1778) was one of the major American-born artists working in the Middle Colonies and the South in the third quarter of the 18C. The son of Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755), a Swedish portrait painter who came to America in 1711.  His father was Gustavus Hesselius painted mostly in Maryland & Pennsylvania. John was probably born in Philadelphia. His earliest signed work is dated 1750.  It seems likely that Gustavus Hesselius was John Hesselius’s first instructor. John Hesselius also studied with Robert Feke & his early portraits are stylistically more similar to Feke’s. Hesselius latest signed work dates to 1777.

During his career, Hesselius traveled extensively in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, & possibly in New Jersey. His work seems to have been confined to portraits. All known examples are in oil on canvas, & there is little reason to suspect that he deviated from this practice. He worked exclusively in the late English Baroque & English Rococo traditions of painting, & his style shows the influence of Robert Feke & John Wollaston more strongly than that of his father.

Hesselius married Mary Young Woodward, the widow of Henry Woodward, in 1763, & after that date his energies were divided between his art & the management of his plantation near Annapolis, Maryland. He was also active in the religious affairs of St. Anne’s Parish in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. His interests appear to have been many, & as an artist & landowner he associated with most of the leading citizens of the colony. Hesselius contributed to American painting, & he extended & modified the English tradition of painting in the Colonies.

For family history of the sitter, see: Hayden, Horace Edwin. Virginia genealogies : a genealogy of the Glassell family of Scotland and Virginia: also of the families of Ball, Brown, Bryan, Conway, Daniel, Ewell, Holladay, Lewis, Littlepage, Moncure, Peyton, Robinson, Scott, Taylor, Wallace, and others, of Virginia and Maryland. (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: E.B. Yordy, printer, 1891), p. 248