Date of Award
Larissa Smith Fergeson, Ph.D
When Virginia was first colonized, the environment wasn’t stable enough to support art. With the cultivation of tobacco and the steadying of the economy, in the mid-eighteenth century, families suddenly became wealthy enough to support it. Wealthy families had their portraits taken and put on display in their house to show their status in society and remind visitors of this status. Unlike England’s high society, the portraits didn’t start off showing their elaborate wealth, it first depicted them as humble middle class families with hints of their wealth represented. Later they took on the full demeanor of the English elite, and started to show their extravagance even though their wealth only went back a few generations. The English however, did not look at them as their equals and Virginia’s also didn’t respect their authority because all they wanted was to climb the social ranks as well.
These Virginian elite started to use the concept of patriarchlism-a transition from women running the families to the males running the families, to assert their status to Virginia and the rest of the world. This concept gave the illusion of self-sufficiency and a “divinely appointed social sphere”. They showed this status in their portraits even though they copied their backgrounds, poses, etc. from the English elite. Three styles; Elizabethan-Jacobian, Van Dyke, and the Dutch middle class style were all influenced for the portraits during this time. Early on the Elizabethan-Jacobian prevailed in Virginian portraits because those wealthy enough to have portraits done would travel back to England to pose for them. Once portraits were more widely done in Virginia, the Dutch style prevailed. Over time, the wealthy families started to turn to the more elaborate Van Dyke style to show their generations of wealth.
While the Virginian elite copied major pieces of their portraits from the English, the one things they started to do was depict the family differently. In order to show their patriarchal views, they started to depict the father sitting in the chair in the middle of the family to show his importance. They would also depict the children in adult fashions. Meaning the children not only would look older but they would also dress them in the fashions of the adults. This was to insure that the children would know how they were supposed to look to the rest of society.
West, Erin, "Portraiture in Colonial Virginia: A Transatlantic Narration of Identity" (2009). Theses, Dissertations & Honors Papers. 44.