One of my hobbies is genealogy. I enjoy the sleuthing in archives and libraries, bushwhacking through the strange wilderness that is family. (I’ve no interest in presumed royal connections, but I’m inordinately proud of my descent from six, count ‘em six, accused Salem witches—three hanged.) Often I’ve had opportunity to use my genealogical research skills in my day job.
Thomas Sully, Udney Maria Blakeley (1815–42) (detail), 1830, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in., Gift of the James G. Hanes Memorial Fund, in memory of Lucy Hanes Chatham; and Dr. Edgar D. Baker and Dr. G. Fred Hale
They have helped me trace the provenance of works of art, tracking the transfer of property from one generation to another. And more generally, they have helped me recover the biographies of obscure artists or the once grand and now forgotten people whose portraits now hang in our galleries.
How often have you walked through the Museum’s galleries and come face to face with an arresting portrait? Curious about the person in the picture, you consult the nearby wall label, which may name the person—or not: sadly many portraits shed their identities for an undeserved anonymity. This being an art museum, attention is usually focused on the artist and his painting. A name and perhaps a sentence suffices for the sitter. I’ve often thought that this unfairly neglected the people who sat patiently while some guy in a smock stared searchingly at them and fussed about on canvas with brushes and paints. So I asked myself, If I cannot use a wall label to tell the story of these people, how else can I do it? I can, of course, file away the information for some future publication. Or I can do something unexpected of a curator of my vintage: I can turn to the Web.
One of the most useful genealogical websites goes by the eerie but accurate name Find a Grave. The stated mission of the site is to provide “a virtual cemetery experience” by presenting memorial pages on a vast multitude of the dearly departed, noting the location of gravesites as well as biographical information and links to memorial pages of other family members. You can also post photos of the deceased, the tombstone, etc. As you might expect, Find a Grave is an extremely popular website, ranked high by most search engines. For this reason I decided to test it as means of broadcasting information on selected works in our American collection.
So I offer the following links to memorials for six worthy “people who sat”:
John Singleton Copley, John Burgwin, 1783
Frank Duveneck, Mary E. Goddard (“The Crimson Gown”), 1879
Thomas Eakins, Dr. Albert C. Getchell, 1907
Gilbert Stuart, Charles Davis, circa 1808–09
Gilbert Stuart, Mrs. Charles Davis (Eliza Bussey), 1809–10
Thomas Sully, Udney Maria Blakeley, 1830
Worthy they may have been, but with the exception of John Burgwyn and perhaps Dr. Getchell, these people are now only remembered for their portrait.