Solutions to Portrait Puzzles – Tortoise Shell Combs

Sometimes, if I wait long enough, solutions to portrait puzzles reveal themselves even when I’ve forgotten about them. It’s been about ten years since I first saw the portrait of Dinah Ayers Trigg (Mrs. Shubael Allen). I wondered then about the strange little hat she wore.  George Caleb Bingham painted her in the spring, 1835. In 1859, he painted her granddaughter, Miss Annie Allen.  Those two portraits hung not far from one another.  The portrait of Miss Annie Allen puzzled me. I had never before seen orange in Bingham’s palette or a full floral bouquet on a dress in his artwork.

A few years later, when I found the Bingham portrait of Matilda Donohoe (Mrs. Robert Aull) she wore the same type of hat as Dinah Allen.  I again wondered about the small chapeau, but the thought was a passing one, to be filed away in the giant mental cabinet somewhere in my brain.

George Caleb Bingham, Matilda Donohoe (Mrs. Robert Aull), 1838
Oil on canvas, 26 x 22 inches
Private Collection

Recently, author William Patrick O’ Brien contacted me about the portrait ofMatilda Donohoe (Mrs. Robert Aull). He needed to be put in contact the owners for their permission to use an image of the portrait in an upcoming book, Merchants of Independence.  Her husband, Robert Aull, had been a major player in the Santa Fe trade and had owned a store in Independence, Missouri.

In his phone call, Mr. O’Brien mentioned the mantilla comb in Matilda’s hair as representative of the Santa Fe trade of her husband. Mrs. Aull’s earring adornments were the only ones I’d seen in Bingham portraits before the early 1870s.  I had previously picked up the idea – I think Bingham conservator Tom Yancey of Fayette, Missouri, may have made the suggestion – that the earrings were probably a gift from Mexico from Mr. Aull to Mrs. Aull.  Mantilla comb never occurred to me.  

That epiphany meant that Dinah Allen also wore a mantilla comb. It made sense.  In the 1820s, 12 miles north of Independence, Missouri, near the equally patriotically-named town of Liberty, Missouri, Dinah’s husband, Shubael Allen, founded Liberty Landing, “one of the most beautiful and romantic plantations in the state.” Allen also built a river landing and warehouses. By 1829, Allen’s Landing was “northwestern Missouri’s main steamboat stop and the last port of call for trappers from the American Fur Company.”  

A few days later, on a break from my volunteer duties at the superb little Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco, Washington, I mentioned the thrilling little discovery to the archivist and curator.  She once worked in New Mexico. We opened my website to see the images.  She immediately said, “Yes, tortoise shell combs.”  She noted that Mrs. Aull wore a mantilla around her shoulders while Mrs. Allen wore the common fashion of the day, a pelerine.  I also shared the portrait of Miss Annie Allen with the archivist. She marveled at the hand-embroidered dress from Mexico.  As a good historian, she qualified that she couldn’t be certain the  dress was from Mexico, but it certainly reminded her of similar dresses, especially the hem design.

The following day I visited a former college roommate who grew up in southwest Texas. In undergraduate school we enrolled together in art history classes and art and art history are still touchstones for us today.  I mentioned the combs and the dress to her. When I shared the image of Miss Annie Allen, my friend matter-of-factly said, “Yes, it’s from Mexico. My sister and I had dresses like that when we were children.”

The answers to the portrait puzzles reinforced the pervasiveness of  Spanish-Mexican cultural influence in antebellum America. The solutions to the portrait puzzles reminded me, too, of the importance leaving the purely intellectual plateau to ground an artwork in facts. Individual personal experiences from multiple perspectives provided the answers.