Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Portrait of an 18C American Woman

Susannah (Rose) Lawson (1749-1825) by John Hesselius (1728-1778) at MESDA on Loan from Colonial Williamsburg

MESDA tells us that Susannah (Rose) Lawson (1749-1825) was the daughter of Ann (Fitzhugh) Rose (1721-1789) and the Reverend Robert Rose (1704-1751). Reverend Rose held pulpits in Essex and Albemarle County, Virginia, and lived at Bear Garden plantation in Albemarle County. Following her father’s death the family moved back to Stafford County, where her mother’s family, the Fitzhughs, lived.

Susannah married Gavin Lawson (1738-1805) lived at Hampstead plantation, Stafford County, Virginia, and moved later to Geneva, Seneca County, New York. He was a successful merchant. No doubt the Lawsons commissioned these extraordinary likenesses because of a familiarity with some of the many paintings that Hesselius created of his wife’s family, the Fitzhughs. The Lawson portraits show a strong influence of the English itinerant artist John Wollaston (1710-1775) as well as Hesselius’s fully developed interpretation of the rococo style. They rank among his most ambitious portraits with highly developed compositions, complex perspective, and sophisticated coloring, particularly in the use of warmer hues for shading. The chair that Lawson sits in is highly suggestive of the work of King George County, Virginia, cabinetmaker Robert Walker 1710-1777).

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 eighteenth century. The son of Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755), a Swedish painter who came to America in 1711, John was probably born in Philadelphia. His earliest signed work is dated 1750. It is thought to depict Millicent Conway Gordon (b.1725) of Lancaster County, Virginia. It is in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society (1984.4). Hesselius latest signed work dates to 1777.

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

Hesselius married Mary Young Woodward, the widow of Henry Woodward, in 1763, and after that date his energies were divided between his art and 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, and as an artist and landowner he associated with most of the leading citizens of the colony. Hesselius contributed to American painting, and he extended and modified the English tradition of painting in the Colonies.