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Faces from the Past: Discovering Family Portraits You May Never Have Expected

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View from the Family Tree

Finding ancestral portraits has been a conversation lately on the New England Historic Genealogical Society's Facebook page and is a topic well worth examining. As genealogists, when we locate a portrait, photograph or other image of an ancestor it can be one of our most gratifying --- and revealing --- discoveries. This has happened to me several times over the last twenty years.

Founder Portrait Large

Just yesterday I was contacted by a member of my family who received an image of one of our ancestors by email from a distant cousin. This ancestor, born in Germany in 1735, initially came to New Jersey and subsequently removed to Canada. While I have seen his name on my charts for many years, I had never paused for even a moment to imagine what he might have looked like. If I had been asked to think about him, I might have pictured a dour German gentleman of a certain age, hardened by the difficulties of a strenuous life --- in short, an immigrant and pioneer who, in all likelihood, was not a typical candidate for a portrait. Instead, as I opened the email attachment, I was startled to see a naive rendition of a jaunty fellow in 18th century husbandman's garb. This folky portrait pictures him walking through a snowy landscape beneath gloomy skies. Here he is --- an axe under one arm, puffing on a long clay pipe dangled between the fingers of his left hand, with an open-mouthed, wolf-like dog at his heels. Is there a shadow of a smile on his face? This portrait took me by surprise! I look forward to learning more about this most unexpected, and rather endearing, family relic and its provenance.  


At NEHGS we are often asked for sources to locate family portraits, including ancestors from the first generations of immigrants to New England and elsewhere in America. One of my favorite sources is Charles Knowles Bolton's 1919 "Portraits of the Founders" AKA "The Founders: Portraits of Persons Born Abroad Who Came to North America Before the Year 1701." Published in three volumes, this fine source helpfully divides several dozen early portraits into geographic regions, including New England-Virginia and Maryland-New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware-and-the West. Over the course of three volumes, Bolton considered, and sometimes reconsidered, these portraits, their artists, and, for several, questions about their validity. It is a fascinating study. Anyone researching early America should consult it. Just flipping though one volume this morning I learned more about one of the New England Historic Genealogical Society's 17th c. portraits, Mabel (Harlakenden) Haynes (1614-1655), wife of Governor John Haynes of Connecticut, and later of Samuel Eaton. Bolton provided some intriguing insights into the life of Mrs. Haynes that make her more "human," including her illness in the spring of 1648. During this malady her first husband wrote "My wife is yet in the land of the livinge, only weake, keepes her bedd constantly --- If she tryes to sit upp, presently falls into her violent fitts." Perhaps to everyone's surprise, Mabel later recovered and the Rev. John Wilson of Boston mentioned "the miraculous cure of sweet Mris. [sic] Haines." Now we know one of Boston's most important ministers called her "sweet." Her gentle face certainly continues to communicate this attribute centuries later. We also learn that at some point the portrait was in terrible condition, even, purportedly, damaged by an unsuccessful suitor, and, finally, poorly restored in England: "It was very dirty. The canvas was rotten and had to be renewed. A sword-thrust over the right eye was said to have been made by a rejected suitor ... [the portrait was sent to a] London cleaner, whose work proved somewhat disastrous." Fun stuff to discover about a portrait I have been walking past in the halls at NEHGS for eighteen years.


Finding ancestral portraits is hard and sometimes unfulfilling work, but the rewards --- when they come --- can make the hunt worth your while.


View "The Founders: Portraits of Persons Born Abroad Who Came to North America Before the Year 1701." for free on Google books.

D. Brenton Simons
President and CEO

Posted by Ryan Woods at 01/26/2011 10:35:03 AM 

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