The clue to solving the mystery of an antebellum portrait of a young woman was in the auction house description, “the subject was a relative of David Rittenhouse (1732-1796), first director of the U. S. Mint.” The name rang a bell, and a bit of research revealed that David Rittenhouse was also one of early America’s foremost mathematicians and scientists, second only to his friend Benjamin Franklin. How could a portrait of a descendant be by an unknown artist? How could such a demure, poised young woman be nameless?
The investigation began, as always, by determining when the portrait was painted. Only in the mid-1840s did women’s hairstyles combine a deep wave on the cheek with an exposed ear, the date could easily be placed in the mid-1840s. The next question was where.
Initial genealogical research into the family of David Rittenhouse disclosed that the family remained in or near Philadelphia for generations.
The auction house supplied a handwritten note and postmarked envelopes that the seller retained from his private purchase in Philadelphia in 1976. The letter contained little salient information concerning either the provenance of the portrait or the identity of subject or artist. The signature was not completely decipherable and did not fully match the monogram on the stationery. The postmark on the front of the envelope and the return address and note on the back of the envelope provided clues. The postmark was Flourtown, Pennsylvania. The return address named the owners, Irvin and Dolores Boyd, of Meetinghouse Antiques in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. The note read “Female Portrait in Living Room,” indicating the portrait was part of an estate the Boyds purchased or a sale they managed.
The Boyds founded Meetinghouse Antiques in 1959. It still exists today and is owned by their daughter, Priscilla Boyd Angelos, as Boyd’s Antiques. I contacted her. Much to my surprise, she responded, “I do know the woman who sold it to my dad was a descendant. She lived in our town and just died at the age of 88 in August of last year.” She also knew the married name of the individual. The married name fit the stationery’s monogram.
The provenance for A David Rittenhouse Descendant became:
By descent in the Rittenhouse family, sold to Meetinghouse Antiques, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, 1976; sold to private individual in Cuyahoga, Ohio, 1976; to public auction in 2014, to current owner.
But which descendant was the sitter and who was the artist?
The name of the artist proved elusive until I studied the Rittenhouse family thoroughly. As I researched, I kept in mind that since the portrait subject appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties, and that the date of the painting was circa 1845, her birthdate should be somewhere around 1820. But, to learn for certain who she was, I had to begin with David Rittenhouse. Several facts deepened my study. The family history of the young woman in the portrait included not just the brilliant mathematician/ scientist, David Rittenhouse, but also Jonathan Dickinson, president of Princeton University; Founding Father Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant; Thomas Barton, the designer of the Great Seal of the Republic, and William Paul Crillon Barton, first Surgeon General of the United States Navy. The complete story of the fascinating family history can be found here. Below is a family tree illustrated with prints and portraits. See footnote  for further information on each image.
Illustrated Family Tree of A Descendant of David Rittenhouse
In following the family history of David Rittenhouse to 1845, I discovered that by the fourth generation, the Rittenhouse genealogy decreased to only one branch. The name Barton replaced David Rittenhouse’s surname when his granddaughter, Esther Sergeant married William Paul Crillon Barton. William and Hetty Sergeant Barton had 14 children. Seven daughters lived to adulthood.
- Elizabeth Barton (1815-1895) (Mrs. Samuel Abbott)
- Julia Barton (1817-1884) (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Miller)
- Adeline Barton(1818-1876) (Mrs. Thomas Howard Paschl)
- Emma Barton (1822-1882) (Mrs. Frederick Carroll Brewster)
- Mary Barton (1823-1856) (unmarried)
- Lavinia Barton(1827-1895) (unmarried)
- Selina Barton (1830-after 1871) (unmarried)
One of those daughters must be the subject of the portrait. The two oldest daughters, Elizabeth and Julia, both married in 1840. But, the sitter did not wear a wedding ring so neither is the subject of Portrait of a Young Lady. Adeline was 27 in 1845 and probably was too old to be the subject. Emma was 23; Mary, 22; Lavinia, 18; and Selina, 15. One of those four daughters is the young woman in the portrait. A search in all the historical societies and archives in and around Philadelphia area brought up nothing for any of those names. For now, the identity of the subject is Miss Barton. Still left to be known was the artist’s identity.
In the mid-1840s, America’s first art center, Philadelphia, still held its own against New York City’s growing art world. The most popular portrait artist in Philadelphia for decades was Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Long, graceful fluid lines characterize Sully. He came from a family of actors and his paintings often have the feel of a stage set. Portrait of a Young Lady was far too practical to be by Sully. The portrait was also too anatomically correct. Sully could paint a fine picture, but when closely examined, necks and arms are disproportionately long.
Sully’s son-in-law, John Neagle, rivaled his father-in-law in popularity. Some of his portraits exhibited the same dark palette, similar dark eyes, a comparable light source and similar shading as Miss Barton. But Neagle relished putting the accoutrements of a subject’s profession in portraits. There were none in A Descendant of David Rittenhouse. Morellian analysis proved John Neagle was not the artist.
The answer to the artist’s identity lay in the foray into family history. A cabinet-sized portrait of the father of the Barton sisters exists, Dr. William P. C. Barton, 1831, owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts. The artist: William James Hubard. I immediately saw not only the family resemblance, but also the hand of the same artist.
An image of a portrait by William James Hubard, Henrietta and Sarah Mayo, shared by an expert on Hubard, confirmed the identity of the artist of Miss Barton.
William James Hubard (1807-1862) deserves a page unto himself. Find it here.
In my opinion, the portrait of a Descendant of David Rittenhouse, purchased at auction in November 2014, was painted by William James Hubard (1807-1862) in Philadelphia, probably in the late winter or early spring of 1844. The subject was Miss Barton, one of four daughters of William P. C. and Elizabeth Rittenhouse Sergeant Barton: Emma Barton (Mrs. Frederick Carroll Brewster) (1822-1882), Mary Barton (1823-1856), Lavinia Barton (1827-1895); or Selina Barton(1830-after 1871).
- Priscilla Boyd Angelos, “About Us,” Meetinghouse Antiques, www.boydsantiques.com; Bonnie L. Cook, “Dolores H. Boyd, 79; sold antiques in Ft. Washington,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 2009
- Images in the family tree, beginning at top left and moving clockwise, are: Edward Ludlow Mooney, Jonathan Dickinson, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches, Princeton University Art Museum, Gift of the Artist, PP6; Charles Willson Peale, David Rittenhouse, 1796, Oil on Canvas, 49 x 39 1/2 inches, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, NPG.98.73; Unknown Artist, Thomas Barton, No Date (ND), “Thomas Barton (1730-1780),” Penn Biographies, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/barton_tho.html, accessed December 2014; Copy after Charles Willson Peale, William Barton, ND. “William Barton (heraldist),” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Barton_(heraldist), accessed December 2014; William James Hubard, Dr. William P. C. Barton, 1831, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009.77.1; Miss Barton; Charles Willson Peale, Elizabeth Rittenhouse (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant), 1789, Private Collection; Charles Willson Peale, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, 1786, Gift of Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, Princeton University Art Museum, PP163.