By Janine Yorimoto Boldt
Colonial Virginia Portraits is an interactive database of oil portraits with a documented history in Virginia or featuring colonial Virginia subjects painted before ca. 1776. This includes portraits painted in both the colonies and abroad. While most subjects are colonists, there are also records of portraits of family, friends, and officials from England or elsewhere that hung in Virginia homes. It also includes portraits of colonial Virginians that were sent or left abroad. The database does not include miniature portraits, prints, or public commissions of public figures, such as the portraits of the monarchs that hung in government buildings. Instead, the emphasis of this project is on domestic portraiture.
Colonial Virginia Portraits represents the primary resources that I have collected and that inform my scholarship on the topic. Since 2015, I have gathered information regarding colonial Virginia portraits from museum collections, archives, and a variety of published sources. This database is not exhaustive. Many of the references I found to portraits in wills and family histories were discovered by chance. A systematic search of colonial Virginia wills and inventories would surely reveal more portraits. All of the information is subject to change based on new research. If you have information about one of the portraits in the database or information about a portrait that you believe is from colonial Virginia or represents a colonial Virginian, please reach out using the comment feature at the bottom of the page.
While the research contained in these pages is mine, this website is produced in collaboration with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture (also known as the OI). The OI supports scholars and scholarship of early America and it is their aim—and mine—that this website will prove to be a useful tool for all those interested in colonial portraiture as well as inspire further conversations about these images and histories. We hope that Colonial Virginia Portraits will continue to grow and inspire new research.
Wherever possible, images are provided for reference purposes and personal research use only. These images have been generously shared by a number of institutions and private owners.
Portraits can be browsed by family name, artist, historic location, decade, and attributes. Individual portraits also are searchable by tagged features and keywords. An explanation of each of these terms is below:
Each entry is named after the individual the portrait represents, or is believed to represent. Where sitter identification is tentative, “called” is added before the name. Sometimes, archival references to “family pictures” do not name the individual, in which case, the title is “Unknown.” Female subjects who were painted as youths or before their marriage are listed with their maiden surnames. If they were painted as married women, they are listed with their family surname and their married name; for example, “Elizabeth Burwell Nelson (Mrs. William Nelson).” Life dates for subjects are provided when they can be determined. The names used are also the ones that the subject is commonly identified as or as they appear in the museum record. For example, there are many men with the same names, but only the men regularly referred to as I, II, III, IV, or Sr. and Jr. are given suffixes in the database.
Because portraits are a type of genealogical document, surnames are searchable in an effort to visualize kinship connections between sitters. Women are tagged with both their unmarried and married family names.
When a portrait is commonly attributed to an artist their names are included, otherwise the artist is listed as unknown. Current attributions are based on museum attributions and curatorial research as well as my own research and opinions. Where an attribution is particularly tentative, “unknown” is included along with an attributed artist’s name. If a colonial portrait is documented by a later copy of the painting, an entry is listed with the original eighteenth-century artist’s name and the copyist is named in the accompanying text. The image of the copy is included as a general reference and record of a colonial portrait. As this database is intended to record colonial portraits, the colonial artist is the primary artist of interest.
Exact dates for most portraits are difficult to determine. Therefore, portraits are tagged and browsable by approximate decade(s). This allows for a researcher to view portraits associated with a general period. Where an exact date or small range of dates can be determined, these are listed on the portrait page.
In an effort to visualize the movement of itinerant artists in Virginia and to visualize collections, historic locations associated with the portraits are mapped. In most cases, the locations are the primary family residence of the subject. If a portrait was painted in a documented location that was not the family residence, that location is also included. When a portrait was painted in England, London is the default associated location, although it is possible that the artist worked outside of London. Nearly all artists working in Virginia were itinerant. The map feature shows where artists likely worked and may assist in visualizing networks of patrons and dating portraits. The locations tag will also allow for the visual reconstruction and reunion of portrait collections that have been dispersed over the centuries.
Please note that only associated colonial locations are mapped at their approximate historic locations. These do not correspond with the current locations of the portraits.
Basic attributes of the portraits are tagged to allow researchers to browse and search for specific features and gather data about portrait compositions and subjects. For example, searching for “woman” will tell you how many portraits of colonial Virginia women are known, while searching for “woman” + “flowers” will tell you how many portraits of women included flowers, a popular prop in women’s portraits. Standard canvas sizes are also tagged. Artists typically painted on standard-sized, imported canvases: full-length (approximately 94 x 58 in.), half-length (approximately 50 x 40 in.), three-quarter (approximately 30 x 25 in.), and kit-cat (approximately 36 x 28 in.). These measurements could vary by a few inches depending on how the canvas was cut and stretched.
I would like to sincerely thank the families, curators, registrars, conservators, other museum staff, and scholars who have shared information with me, prepared digital images, and granted me access to paintings. Colonial Virginia Portraits would not be possible without their contributions and generosity.
The OI and I are grateful to the following institutions and individuals who have provided images of paintings in their collections or archives for this project: Virginia Museum of History & Culture, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, The Frick Art Reference Library, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) Object Database, Muscarelle Museum of Art at William & Mary, Shirley Plantation, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Washington & Lee University Collections of Art and History, Library of Virginia, Carlyle House Historic Park, The Valentine, Kenmore and the George Washington Foundation, Gunston Hall, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Stratford Hall, George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Georgetown University, Detroit Institute of Arts, The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, Historic Smithfield, Brooklyn Museum, Shelburne Museum, The Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, Tudor Place, Wilton House Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, The Met, Maryland Historical Society, and anonymous private owners.
I also would like to acknowledge Martha Howard, Karin Wulf, and Scott Hale and the Colour Outside team for their contributions to this website’s design and production.