Fig. 1. Susan Lawrence Ridgely Sedgwick, Portrait of Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman (c.1742–1829). Watercolor on ivory, 1811. © Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA, USA/ The Bridgeman Art Library.

Fig. 2. Elizabeth Way Champlain, unfinished self portrait. Watercolor on ivory, n.d. Courtesy of Ramsay MacMullen.

The Color of Whiteness: Picturing Race on Ivory


TWO WOMEN—one black, the other white—meet our gaze. The black woman is recessed into the picture plane, as though she has taken a step back, away from us. With a tilt of her chin, the white woman appears to project herself off of the ivory support and into our space. The painting of the black woman is finished and framed; her likeness has moved into the networks of affiliation that sustain and are sustained by portraiture. The painting of the white woman is unfinished. It never served as a surrogate for the sitter in its own time, although it does fulfill that purpose in ours. The paintings are conventional, immediately recognizable as miniature portraits painted in watercolor on thin sheets of ivory. In the first half of the nineteenth century, such likenesses were ubiquitous among affluent and middling Americans; today, they are ubiquitous at historical societies and museums, in antiques shops, and on eBay. Yet while the genre is familiar, these particular paintings are not. Portraits of nineteenth-century African-American women are rare, portraits on ivory all the more so. Unfinished miniature portraits from any period are also unusual. Yet these miniatures are set apart by more than the race of the sitter or the completion of the painting. Unlike the vast majority of extant ivory miniatures, they survive embedded in their stories, stories about the ties that bound sitters, artists, and viewers.

The painting of the African-American woman is a portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, a Massachusetts slave who claimed her liberty in 1781 (fig. 1). According to one story, after hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud in a Sheffield church, she successfully sued for freedom in a case that challenged the constitutionality of slavery in Massachusetts. Freeman never learned to read or write. But even as a slave, she had been widely respected for her courage, integrity, and judgment. After gaining her freedom, she went to work in the household of Theodore Sedgwick, the attorney who had represented her. There, she was cook, housekeeper, nurse, and more. Sedgwick’s first wife, Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, was regularly incapacitated, physically and emotionally. Elizabeth Freeman stepped into the vacuum left by her mistress’s frailty and finally by her death in 1807. She left the Sedgwick household a year later, when Theodore remarried: according to Sedgwick family lore, Freeman balked at conceding her cherished authority to the new mistress. Instead, she retired to the small home she had purchased with her savings, worked as a nurse, and devoted herself to her grown child, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. But she never cut her ties to the Sedgwick family circle. Instead, she returned at regular intervals to care for the family when she was especially needed. Indeed, it may well have been one of these visits—part sociability, part support—that occasioned Freeman’s portrait, painted in 1811 by Susan Lawrence Ridley Sedgwick, the daughter-in-law of Freeman’s former attorney and employer. Elizabeth Freeman died in 1829. Despite her own fondness for fine dress and what one contemporary described as the “reckless consumption” of her kin, she left not “a single debt” to encumber an estate that amounted to nearly $1,000.1

The white woman portrayed in the second painting is Elizabeth (Betsey) Way Champlain, a miniaturist from New London, Connecticut. She began this self-portrait in 1818 (fig. 2). Champlain was born into a middling mercantile family just before the Revolution. It isn’t clear when or how she learned to paint, but by the time she was in her twenties, she had begun to paint miniature portraits of neighbors and kin. Her 1794 marriage to ship captain George Champlain did not bring her career to a halt. On the contrary. She continued to paint and teach throughout her marriage, perhaps to help stabilize the family’s erratic income. From her husband’s death in 1820 until her own, she lived mostly by her brush. Betsey Way Champlain worked diligently at her craft, learning when and where she could. Yet it would be a mistake to cast her merely as an earnest craftswoman, for she was an irrepressible culture vulture. She wrote sketches and especially poems on themes like “Viewing a Comet,” “On Flattery,” “The Muse,” and “Fancy.” She associated herself with a coterie of very minor poets who circulated between New London and New York City. She played guitar and “flaggellett” and in her forties she took up dancing, mastering the “five positions” and waltzing her husband—and his cane—around their parlor. In 1825, Betsey Way Champlain died unexpectedly after a brief illness.2

And what of the paintings themselves? However different the sitters were from one another, their portraits confirm scholars’ conclusions about the cultural and social contexts of women’s artistic production on the one hand and the significance of portrait miniatures in the Early Republic. We know nothing about how, when, or why either Susan Ridley Sedgwick or Betsey Way Champlain learned to paint, much less how the women acquired the special skills necessary to paint in miniature on ivory. But it is doubtful that either received systematic training in the arts. That kind of instruction was notoriously hard to come by, even for aspiring male artists; indeed, its absence has become a set piece in art historical narratives. It therefore seems likely that both Sedgwick and Champlain were introduced to the rudiments of watercolor painting as part of their acquisition of the accomplishments that crowned elite and middling women’s education in the Early Republic. The overwhelming majority of female and coeducational academies and seminaries included some form of artistic training in their curricula; when they did not, private drawing and painting masters catering to young ladies and gentlemen stepped in to supply the need. One component of a broader concern with aesthetics, accomplishments were calculated to cultivate taste. The creation of an embroidered picture, a water-colored landscape, or a bouquet of worsted flowers suitable for display in the home was the training’s byproduct rather than its end.3 That said, advocates of the accomplishments also pointed out that the ornamental skills had market value; in a pinch, a woman could use her accomplishments for self-support. As one writer put it, the “fine arts or the sciences” that single women pursued for their “amusement or instruction” could become necessities depending on the “inactivity, folly, or death of a husband.”4

For Susan Ridley Sedgwick, daughter of one prosperous man and wife of another, painting remained an avocation, an accomplishment. As a girl, she had attended schools in Boston and Albany, where she met Catharine Maria Sedgwick and where she likely met her future husband, Theodore Sedgwick II, an attorney and Catharine’s older brother. Susan Ridley Sedgwick set enough store on art and on her own talent that she devoted time to mastering the painstaking technique demanded by a water-colored ivory miniature. She probably offered support, perhaps even instruction, to her daughter, Maria Banyer Sedgwick, another gifted amateur artist. But, like Betsey Champlain, Susan Ridley Sedgwick also enjoyed writing, a creative outlet and form of cultural production that offered distinct advantages over painting. For one thing, as a fledgling writer, Susan enjoyed the enthusiastic encouragement of her dear friend and sister-in-law, the renowned novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick. For another, a writer could produce (and sell) her work from the privacy of her own home, shrouded in decorous anonymity. Portrait painters by necessity ventured into the public to secure sitters. In the nineteenth century, it was far easier to be a scribbling woman than a painting one. Personal connections and public sentiment all but guaranteed that when Susan Ridley Sedgwick entered the cultural marketplace in the late 1820s, her aim was not to sell portraits but to publish didactic children’s literature.5

Pushed by economic necessity and pulled by a love of art, Betsey Way Champlain turned her accomplishment into a saleable skill. This was no mean feat. Earning steady money as a female painter was far more difficult than promised by pundits touting the marketability of the accomplishments. In reality, it “required the greatest exertions to make both ends meet” as Champlain complained in 1822. More than once, she admitted that a “suppression of business” resulted in an “attack of hypochondriac.” Confronted by fluctuating demand and slim profits, Champlain displayed enormous energy, resilience, and ingenuity. She painted kin, neighbors, and local notables. In the 1810s, she expanded her business by taking likenesses of corpses. All told, she painted enough of New London that by the end of the nineteenth century her portraits of “ladies”—marked by a “delicacy of treatment and purity of sentiment”—had come to stand for the best of “old time” society. When portrait commissions were few and far between, she gave lessons to young women. But despite her eventual status as New London’s painter of record, Champlain deplored her spotty training, which consisted of poring over precepts included in letters from her sister, miniaturist Mary Way, and copying other paintings when they came her way. She and her family were always certain that her progress was hobbled by her ignorance of theory and by the lack of guidance that formal studio training could provide.6

Just as the artists’ lives confirm our understanding of the gendered dimension of art production, their paintings confirm our understanding of the familial resonance of miniature portraits. As the art historian Robin Jaffee Frank has suggested, by the early nineteenth century, the growing importance of affection as a family value increased the popularity of ivory miniatures. Small and private, viewed and sometimes worn close to the owner’s body, miniatures deployed physical proximity as a bid for emotional proximity. The sentiments symbolized by these paintings were also manifested by their disposition, for they were typically commissioned as gifts. Whether bestowed singly or as part of a mutual exchange, miniatures reified feeling, fusing it with an object that communicated status as well as sentiment.7

Initially, Anglo-American miniatures evoked sentiments associated with courtship and marriage. Given the price of high-style miniatures like the ones painted by Edward Malbone or Benjamin Trott, which could rival the cost of bust-size oil portraits, it is not surprising that there was often something distinctly dynastic about these unions. However companionate, such marriages were also political, social, and economic alliances between powerful families. Over the first quarter of the nineteenth century, however, the relationships represented and preserved by miniatures began to extend beyond the marital couple—dynastic and otherwise—to encompass wide-ranging networks of kin and friends. This shift surely reflected the growing influence of child-centered family ideals and the emergent culture of sentiment. But it also reflected the increasing availability and affordability of ivory portrait miniatures. By the 1810s, a celebrated miniaturist like Anson Dickinson could command as much as $50.00 for a likeness from a New York City patron. Yet other artists, especially women, charged only a fraction of that. Betsey Way Champlain’s sister Mary Way, who was Dickinson’s New York contemporary if not precisely his competitor, charged around $8.00 per painting. Betsey could charge New Londoners around $5.00.8 Cheap labor, much of it women’s labor, helped create an expansive art market in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Especially in urban areas, middle-class families took advantage of this market to amass multiple representations of multiple kin. Miniatures depicting children, parents, siblings, cousins—even the deceased—heightened the genre’s domestic (as opposed to its conjugal) associations. By the early nineteenth century, ivory miniatures had become affordable luxuries, mementos that could be purchased at any number of junctures in a family’s life course. The portraits of Elizabeth Freeman and Betsey Way Champlain operated in precisely this way. They commemorated and cemented relations among kin, real and fictive. They also captured the mixture of intimacy and interiority that marked the bourgeois family.

Champlain began her self-portrait at the request of and as a gift for her sister Mary Way. After more than seven years apart, Way had an “unconquerable desire” to see Champlain. In particular, she wanted to see her sister decked out in the costume she had only read about: A “sun-flower uniform” comprised of a “yellow turban, yellow gown and black apron with the row of flat-irons across the bosom.” Once she had her sister’s likeness in hand, Way promised, she would return the favor. The portrait exchange would have served as a surrogate visit, supplementing the sisters’ letters and providing each with what Way termed an “ocular demonstration” of the other’s unfolding life. And like their letters, the portraits would have idealized that “demonstration,” tempering the vicissitudes of fortune and the depredations of age with the literary and pictorial conventions of sentiment. As professionals whose work routinely naturalized those conventions, Way and Champlain were explicit about the role of idealization, even artifice, in representation. Champlain’s self-portrait was no exception. Way instructed her sister: “You may flatter [your appearance] as much as you like provided you don’t flatter away all the likeness . . . just keep probability in view.” Although unfinished, the portrait seems to do just that. Forty-seven years old at the time that she began her self-portrait, Way Champlain depicted herself poised in an indeterminate spot between youth and old age. Unlined, full, and firm, her painted face resists our attempts to fix her age, much less the contours of her life history. It defies biography, belying the passage of time itself.

Betsey Way Champlain never sent the portrait to her sister. In any event, by 1818, Mary Way’s failing eyesight would have made it difficult to see her sister’s face reduced onto an ivory the size of a small child’s hand. Still, the painting contributed to the Way-Champlain family bonds. Along with the sisters’ voluminous correspondence, it was passed mother to daughter over three generations, helping to create family tradition and consolidate family identity.9

Elizabeth Freeman’s portrait was painted by the daughter-in-law of a former employer whose entire family claimed her as close kin. Freeman’s name among the Sedgwicks, “Mumbet,” was a double diminutive, collapsing “Mammy,” “Mother,” and “Mah” (variously) into “Bett.” “Mumbet” was more than a nickname. It enshrined Freeman as an ersatz mother to the youngest Sedgwick children, especially Catharine. Her father, Theodore, an ardent Federalist, built a 30-year career in politics and public service; stints in the Massachusetts House and Senate, the U.S. House and Senate, and a seat on Massachusetts’s supreme court pulled him away from home for at least six months every year. Her mother, Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, suffered from poor health and crippling depression that confined her to bed for months at a time. Catharine recalled that her parents’ physical and emotional absences left Freeman to serve as the “main pillar of our household.” Accordingly, the little girl gave the servant something like the love reserved for a mother. Indeed, near the end of Freeman’s life, Catharine praised her as “‘Mother’—my nurse—my faithful friend—she who first received me into her arms” and a “necessary link in the family chain.” She remembered how as a child she “clung” to Freeman with “instinctive love and faith.” She described herself as Freeman’s “particular treasure.”10

The family ties outlived the servant. Freeman’s gravestone, purchased and inscribed by the Sedgwicks, memorialized her as their “Good Mother.” Freeman’s grave is in the section of the Stockbridge, Massachusetts, cemetery reserved for the Sedgwicks. And several years after Freeman’s death, when Henry Dwight Sedgwick, one of Catharine’s brothers, wrote an abolitionist lecture around his memories of and deep love for “Mah Bett,” he confessed to his audience that knew her “as familiarly as I knew either of my parents.”11 I will return later to the peculiar family relations that obtained between Elizabeth Freeman and two generations of Sedgwicks. But for now, it is enough to observe that contemporary writers and scholars endorse the Sedgwick family story. For the most part, the portrait serves as a rare life portrait of an African-American woman and as an illustration for a text-based recounting of Freeman’s 1783 lawsuit. Where the painting is discussed, it signifies an unproblematic gesture of familial affection.12 Like the tombstone, then, the ivory miniature substantiates Freeman’s special place in the Sedgwick clan, blurring multiple boundaries between real and fictive kin.

Although the painting surely signals Freeman’s special relationship with her former employers, it may also have deepened the ties between those who were born Sedgwicks and those who married them. It isn’t clear for whom the portrait was painted. But it is easy to imagine Susan Ridley Sedgwick painting it as a gift for Catharine, her beloved sister-in-law, or Theodore Sedgwick II, her husband. Whoever the recipient, the painting surely belonged to the Sedgwicks and not the Freemans, for it was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1884 by Maria Banyer Sedgwick, the artist’s daughter.

* * *

Whatever these images confirm about the peripheral position of female artists in the early republic or about the familial resonance of ivory portrait miniatures, placed alongside each other they provoke new questions about the pictorial representation of race. The contrast in the sitters’ lives is recapitulated in the stark contrast of painted flesh—one black, the other ivory.

It is hard not to notice Freeman’s blackness. To achieve it, Sedgwick had to violate the fundamental conventions that governed portraiture in general and ivory miniatures in particular. The gentle delineation of features that characterize ivory miniatures is replaced by bold definition. Thick, heavy lines articulate Freeman’s brows, nose and mouth, drawing attention to her most “African” features. Her solid form is without grace. Asymmetrical breasts hang heavy, unsupported by muscle or stay. Fabric strains around the girth of laboring arms. Delicate touches—the ruffled cap, the gold beads—suggest both feminine sensibility and genteel aspiration. But these small, fine details are overpowered by both the scale and shape of Freeman’s form. And then, of course, there is her skin. Sedgwick layered washes of a single color, probably Cologne Brown, to outline Freeman’s features and to model the planes of her face. She filled in the background with the same color, ignoring pictorial conventions that demanded an unobtrusive background. Like drapery and clothing, background was typically used to flatter the sitter’s coloring. Instead, Sedgwick framed Freeman’s face with the bold white of her cap and chemise and the clear blue of her dress. The effect is flat, graphic, and black. Brow, nose, lips, breasts, and skin: Susan Ridley Sedgwick represented Elizabeth Freeman as a catalogue of racial signifiers.13

It would be a mistake to confine our discussion of race to this one very rare image. The fashion for ivory miniatures, which spurred the renaissance in miniature painting in mid-eighteenth-century England and its emergence in late-eighteenth Anglo-America, coincided with the transatlantic elaboration of racial ideologies and identities. Just as ivory miniatures played a role in the simultaneous expansion of polite society and the rise of the affectional family, so too did they play a role in the construction and representation of whiteness. English portrait miniatures, which emerged in the Tudor courts and spread to the gentry and middling classes by the seventeenth century, were originally watercolor-on-vellum or, less frequently, oil-on-copper (fig. 3). The densely colored paintings fused gentility with the constellation of associations that would characterize the genre for more than two hundred years: intensely private images that might become public at the owner’s discretion; tiny subjects who draw the viewer forward, into an intimacy born of proximity; the suggestion that possession of the picture signaled possession of the sitter. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, the miniature was in decline. Its popularity was restored first by the substitution of ivory for vellum and then by the adoption of a subdued palette that exploited the color, translucence, and texture of ivory.14

Fig. 3. John Hoskins, miniature portrait of a man, perhaps Sir John Wildman. Watercolor on vellum, 1647. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Eng.

These shifts were neither obvious nor easy. Ivory did not accommodate watercolor. Before the would-be miniaturist wrestled with the standard technical questions about creating a convincing representation, she first had to manage to get the paint to adhere to the support. This demanded the painstaking preparation of each component of the painting. The slippery sheet of ivory had to be degreased, bleached, and ground with pumice powder. The paint—pigment, water, and binder (gum arabic and sometimes sugar candy)—had to be mixed in precise proportions; as late as the 1820s, after the introduction of high-quality commercially manufactured paint cakes, some miniaturists still opted to regrind the pigments to obtain the desired “fineness of texture.” Even with properly prepared support and paints, applying watercolor to ivory was notoriously difficult. The painter first lightly traced the outline of the sitter on the ivory. Less assured artists were encouraged to draw the outline to scale on a sheet of paper which could then be placed beneath the ivory where, as one instructor observed, the support’s “transparency will enable you to trace it very distinctly.” Next, the painter colored in the shadowed areas of the face and background with a relatively dark “dead color” before washing solid colors onto the background and sitter’s body, moving gradually from darker to lighter colors. To control the intensity of color, novice painters were encouraged to turn the picture upside down when they painted in the face’s “general” color, which provided its foundation. By beginning with the chin and working down toward the forehead, the brush would become “exhausted” and “naturally make the forehead the lightest part” of the face.

Draperies and flesh required different paint mixtures and different application methods. Except for the flimsiest empire dresses, clothing required opaque colors that were “floated” onto the ivory by laying the picture “horizontally,” to allow the paint to “become perfectly flat from its fluidity.” The features and planes of the face were added to the ivory (now turned upright) through layers of cross-hatching and stippling. The paint used for flesh was as translucent as the painter could manage to mix it, for sheer layers of delicate color allowed the translucent ivory to glow through the paint. The face’s highlights were rendered by leaving the ivory bare or by gently removing paint with the tip of a lancet. By exposing the support in this way, the painter conferred upon the sitter a complexion that was literally ivory.15

By the end of the eighteenth century, American miniaturists, following a style established some thirty years earlier by English artists, had learned to exploit watercolor and ivory alike to create gently colored portraits of luminous ladies and gentlemen (figs. 4 and 5).16 This distinctly English style of miniature portrait (epitomized on one side of the Atlantic by Richard Cosway and on the other by Edward Greene Malbone) was well suited for the aesthetic ideal of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with its emphasis on restrained colors and elegant forms. But ivories also resonated with an Anglo-American social aesthetic that fused gentility, sensibility, and whiteness. On both sides of the Atlantic, artists and patrons prized ivories because they were luminous, transparent, delicate, and softly harmonious—politically-freighted terms that located both artifacts and sitters squarely within the cult of sensibility.17

Fig. 4. Richard Cosway, miniature portrait of an unidentified woman. Watercolor on ivory, 1798. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 5. Edward Greene Malbone, Mrs. Richard Sullivan (Sarah Russell) (1786–1831). Watercolor on ivory, 1804. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., Lelia A. And John Hill Morgan, B.A. 189. LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, collection.

Scholars have begun to explore the ways in which the transatlantic culture of sensibility was bound up not only with class and gender but with race: sensibility was simultaneously confirmed by the visible register of emotion on pale skin, challenged by the cruel traffic in black bodies, and complicated by centuries of colonial encounter and conquest. The feeling and discernment that characterized men and women of sense may have originated in their hearts and minds. But those same qualities were most immediately apprehended on their bodies—in their posture and gait, through their expressive repertoire, and on their skin. Indeed, precisely because European skin registered “every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour,” in Thomas Jefferson’s words, it revealed an individual’s character.18 Like a scrim, white skin’s opacity was an illusion; its fundamental transparency was revealed to sensible observers by the rise of feeling and the play of color.

This combination of mutability and transparency was predicated on and validated by scientific explanations of human character and variety. Broadly speaking, Anglo-Americans had two vocabularies for making sense of skin color, one based on ancient ideas about the humors, the other on anatomical science. Humoral theory posited that complexion, which included temperament and mental and physical capacity along with skin color, resulted from the interaction of climate and body. Because complexion was the product of ongoing, dynamic interaction, it was also mutable; it responded to changes in age, geography, and living conditions. Anatomical theory, on the other hand, fixed skin color within the body; scholars variously associated skin color with the topmost layer of the epidermis or with a thin membrane lying immediately beneath it. As literary historian Roxann Wheeler has recently demonstrated, humoral and anatomical models persisted side by side and in combination well into the nineteenth century. Taken together, they worked against the straightforward reduction of skin color to race.19 Notwithstanding the significance of emergent racial ideologies, eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century natural scientists viewed “white” skin as more than the opposite of black.

In fact, even American commentators who were explicitly preoccupied with the elaboration of race along a black-white axis agreed that European whiteness was not a single color but a compendium of them. Samuel Stanhope Smith, president of Princeton University and author of the influential Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion, argued that the climate accounted not only for, say, differences between Europeans and Asians. It also accounted for color differences among Europeans. As he explained, “white may be regarded as the colourless state of skin, and all the shades of the dark colours as different stains inserted into its substance.” But Europeans were not white per se: “In Britain and Germany they are fair, brown in France and in Turkey, swarthy in Portugal and Spain.” And in Anglo-America, Smith detected a “certain paleness of countenance.” Generally speaking, the “American complexion does not exhibit so clear a red and white as the British, or the German. And there is a tinge of sallowness spread over it which indicated the tendency of the climate to generate bile.” Complexions differed among classes as well as nations. Smith observed that “the poor and laboring part of the community in every country are usually more dark in their complexion;” exposure and privation left these unfortunates bereft of “the delicate tints of colour” that marked the higher classes. Happily, in the United States, republican society and the widespread distribution of property eliminated these class-based differences in complexion, except between field and house slaves.20

Even those who were not persuaded that climate alone determined skin color accepted the mutability and variety of European skin. An 1814 essay refuting Smith observed that “the infants of Europeans, when newly born, are almost as remote from their parental fairness of complexion, as the infants of Africans are from their hereditary blackness.” Nature “bleached” the skin, “complet[ing] the European complexion” “through the agency of the cutaneous absorbents” which removed the “superfluous matter which obstructs its transparency, and sullies its fairness.”21 And armchair physiognomists were encouraged to read skin color along with facial structure as a register of character. An 1809 essay on physiognomy, for example, insisted that “whoever has reflected on the principles of our nature, well knows, that fluids as they circulate through the organized matter with which our bodies are composed, tinge the very outsides of the channels through which they flow, with their predominant colour.” The skin’s transparency, along with the “incessant return of those same fluids to the same places” created the complexion and revealed an individual’s “passions.” These varieties of mood and character registered in “hues as varied as their motions . . . some are red, others of a leaden cast; some are yellow, others green and even black.”22 Whatever they had to say about the significance of black skin, American theorists agreed with Oliver Goldsmith on the significance of white skin. In Goldsmith’s words, “Of all the colours by which mankind is diversified, it is easy to perceive that ours is not only the most beautiful to the eye, but the most advantageous. The fair complexion seems, if I may so express it, as a transparent covering to the soul; all the variations of the passions, every expression of joy or sorrow, flows to the cheek, and, without language marks the mind.”23

It was this delicately colored transparency, celebrated in polite culture and belle lettres and validated by natural science, that ivory miniatures promised to capture. Betsey Way Champlain herself alluded to these significations in “On Flattery” (1819), a 155-line poem that describes (among other things) her negotiations with two comically demanding patrons. These aging, dissolute members of New London’s gentry are determined to influence the portraits they have commissioned from her. The couple is especially anxious about the depiction of their skin, for their advanced years, along with their vices, are imprinted on their complexions. The wife is freckled, tan, and coarse. Her husband sports an oozing sore on his chin. Appearance portends behavior. During their sittings, a stream of bickering reveals a marriage based upon years of bad faith, worse temper, and boundless stupidity. Exposed before the artist’s eye, they refuse to accept accountability for their faces or, by extension, their lives. Instead, the sitters insist that their current appearances are temporary aberrations, the result of an ill-advised “blouzing” or a maid’s carelessness with a cap pin. By turns, they implore and command Way Champlain to see them—and thereby make them—what they wish to be. “Lend a flush,” the woman wheedles, “And let your goodness show me what I was.” All business-like pomposity, the man tells Betsey to “omit” the evidence of his maidservant’s “careless mishap.” Casting herself as the beleaguered innocent, the poet-painter has no choice but to comply. As she explains, “they the cash detain, were nothing feigned.”24 Whatever their moral shortcomings, the wealthy couple understood what was at stake in an ivory miniature and they were willing to wield the power of patronage to secure it.

Because of the cultural resonance of complexion, and because it ranked high on the list of things that patrons hoped to secure when they commissioned an ivory miniature, the depiction of skin was the subject of enormous technical discussion and instruction among Anglo-American artists. After all, it was easier to see transparency than to make it. Accordingly, manuals that sought to instruct amateurs and professionals alike in the art of the water-colored ivory devoted pages and pages to the exact mix and application of colors necessary to conjure luminous “white” flesh.

The first step was to learn to observe with a precision that escaped even sensitive viewers, for as Peter Cooper explained, when “observing the colour of the human face, the uneducated eye sees nothing more than the general or local colour, making no nice distinctions between shadows, ‘demi tints,’ ‘pearls,’ or ‘grey tints.’”25 Once the artist learned to recognize the components of complexion, he or she could begin to notice that they shifted with a sitter’s mood. As one manual explained, the excitement of the first sitting would render a subject flushed; the subsequent return of composure revealed the “ordinary complexion”; the effort required by an extended sitting changed the complexion yet again. Realizing this, the painter could make an informed decision about how to represent the subject: “The natural complexion, somewhat heightened, may be the best colour to be applied to the picture.”26

Fig. 6. “Flesh Palette,” from L[éon Larue] Mansion, Letters upon the art of miniature painting (London: R. Ackermann, 1822). Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur, Del.

Painting that complexion, heightened or otherwise, demanded that a painter identify and replicate the multiple shades that comprised it. This was no simple process (figs. 6 and 7). In an 1821 manual, J. Dougall warned that “the colours of carnations . . . or of those parts of the human body which appear uncovered . . . are so various that no rules can be laid down.” Instead, he advanced a set of “broad principles” about the colors of men, women, and children.27 But other writers were far more explicit, listing the various combinations of paint required by particular features. The key lay in the careful combination of minute bits of different colors. As one writer explained, even though Venetian red, mixed with a little Indian yellow offered “the nearest approach to the general colour of “flesh,” it could not begin to capture the tonal complexity of the white face.28 And so a 1788 manual specified that “Vermillion and Carmine” be applied with “strongest Touches at the Corners of the Eyes, next the Nose, under the Nose, the Ears and Under the Chin.” The shadows of temples and neck were to be “blueish Teints with Indigo” and the parts of the face that “rise and come forward to the Sight” should be in “Yellow Teints are composed of Oker and Vermillion.” Finally, the artist should “dot . . . over the Shadows with green Teints.”29 Another writer preferred Indian red and indigo for the dead color with ultramarine blue and “the madder lakes” to add a finer touch to the flesh. Then the “lights and shades” of the complexion could be created out of “light red, pink madder, well ground vermillion, and raw terra de sienna.”30 A Course of Lectures on Drawing, Painting, and Engraving stipulated the order for applying shadow tints: Begin with those that are a mixture of “carmine, gamboge, and Indian Ink” before preceding the “blue and grey tints,” which were to be inserted “at the edges of the first shadows”; add the reddish shadows last. Then, at a second sitting, a “general colour” (either carmine and gamboge or Venetian red and gamboge) could be painted to “cover . . . the whole face,” except of course for the highlighted areas, which required yet another sitting, color scheme, and application pattern.31 Even John Dougall, the champion of “broad principle,” took pains to stipulate the precise combinations of colors demanded by the lights and shadows of the “carnations” by dividing skin into color zones of nose, chin, forehead, hands, fingertips, and joints. He also included detailed instructions for the whites of the eyes, the balls of the eyes, the eyelid, and the lips.32 Painting white flesh was more than a paint-by-numbers proposition, but it also demanded a level of premeditation and precision that no aspiring artist could afford to ignore.

Fig. 7. Edward Greene Malbone, Mrs. Richard Sullivan (Sarah Russell) (1786–1831), detail. Watercolor on ivory. Yale University Art Gallery, Lelia A. And John Hill Morgan, B.A. 189. LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, collection.

Tracing the connections between these kinds of instructions and the literally thousands of extant ivories painted by metropolitan and provincial artists in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America is no easy task. Letters written among Betsey Champlain, her sister Mary Way, and her daughter, Eliza Way Champlain, also a miniaturist, allow us to see snatches of their attempts to acquire the color theory and technique necessary to paint whiteness, and thereby realize the style prescribed in art manuals and hailed by critics and connoisseurs. Throughout the correspondence, Betsey Champlain used her sister and later her daughter to supply high quality ivory and particular colors that were not to be had in New London. But she also relied upon them to share information that only more accomplished painters might provide, information available only in New York City. And most of what they passed along pertained to the vexing issue of color in general and a sitter’s flesh in particular.

Several years after moving to New York to further her career, for example, Mary Way wrote her sister a lengthy letter, cataloguing her own considerable improvements and summarizing the learning that had made them possible. She relayed the wisdom of “connoisseurs” like William Joseph Williams, John Jarvis, Joseph Wood and quoted liberally from a book that Wood loaned her, John Payne’s Art of Painting in Miniature, on Ivory. In effect, she offered her sister a crash course on the techniques and conventions of the ivory miniature. Way explained that “transparent colours only must be used for the flesh, and for draperies, opaque or body colours, as they set off each other [making] the flesh tints appear to more advantage.” The color of that flesh depended upon the “force, strength, and disposition, or situation of the colours, in point of light, that are placed near it.” And though faces required a “thousand different tints” too tedious to recount, Betsey should remember that “the most natural shades for the face are purples, blues, and greys, especially for a delicate complexion. These, however, should be warm’d, more or less . . . with red browns and yellows, such as burnt umber, burnt terra sienna, . . . or gamboge mixed with a little carmine.” In order to see these tints clearly, lighting was critical: Arrange one high light that “strikes with most force upon the temple” creating a “delicate shade tint” along the cheekbone under the eye. As Way pointed out in a later letter, a painter who mastered these techniques could dispense with tricks like backing the support with foil or a daube of white paint to increase the luminosity. Ivory, she pronounced, was “handsomer, without [them], then any mortal complexion.”33

Letters scattered over the next decade reveal Betsey Champlain working to improve her depiction of sitters’ faces by focusing on their complexions. In 1824, after struggling with six recent front faces, she realized that she had “never fixed my room properly for the purpose.” “Better late than never,” she hung blinds and shutters that “shut or open at pleasure.” One shutter was fitted with a door “divided into two—the upper to admit as much light upon the patient as will produce this rich gold shade I have before mentioned.” It was, after all, easier to paint a luminous face when the sitter was lit to create the desired glow. In her refurbished room, Champlain reported, “you see before you what you are to copy, without laying more upon Fancy than she is able to bear or crowding her delicate stomach with too solid food for her digestive properties.”34

Champlain also emulated fine paintings to hone her color perception and brush skills. She was particularly moved by one patron’s snuffbox, which was decorated with the “likeness of a French king who is said to have reign’d in the 16th century.” Fascinated by the way that the crimson turban “left a rich reflection upon forehead and ear,” she badgered the client and his friends until she learned the name of the New York City merchant who sold the marvel. She then asked her daughter to visit the store immediately “and see if there is any you think will answer as a modle for a painter,” preferably a “front face, dark and richly shaded” or a “female, with ringlets.”35 Five years later, she obtained a far better “modle” by copying a miniature painted by Nathaniel Rogers. The result was the “highest style of shading, and looks as if it would speak.” The thrill was in the colors: “A white merino shawl, shaded to resemble black, and pencil colour’d ermine, the white draper very dingy.” The face was “drawn upon the deepest yellow ivory that can can [sic] be,” which was expolited for the “harmonizing tints between the light and shade” and the highlights, which Champlain left “naked . . . natural as life.” Her son William confirmed that the deeply shaded background set off the face of the sitter; the contrast between the two “gives life, ay being, to the peice [sic].”36

Fig. 8. Elizabeth Way Champlain, unfinished portrait of an unidentified sitter. Watercolor on ivory, n.d. Courtesy of Ramsay MacMullen.

Most of Betsey Champlain’s work is lost. Her paintings survive only in the shadow form of letters, making it difficult to see exactly how and when she refined her technique over the course of her career. Nevertheless, she brought at least some of these lessons to bear on an unfinished portrait of an unidentified sitter (fig. 8). The young woman’s dotted dress graces her body, it doesn’t do battle with it. The unfinished lace collar draws our eyes up to the sitter’s face which is crowned by a heavy, black turban. As Mary Way’s authorities promised, the dark, flat black of the turban intensifies the delicate stippled tints that Champlain had begun to apply to contour the young woman’s face. A deep, brownish vermillion shades the nose while a fainter version defines chin and jaw. A mixture of yellowish red brings the blush to her cheeks. Minuscule blue and gray dots mark the shadows around the eyes and beneath the mouth. It is precisely this delicately fashioned transparency that we see in the subtle reds, browns, yellows and pinks of Champlain’s unfinished self-portrait. Race was thus inscribed not only in the shocking blackness of Elizabeth Freeman’s likeness, but in the painstakingly crafted whiteness of Betsey Champlain’s.

* * *

Seeing the racial ideology and the racialized aesthetic at work in both paintings, we can return to the familial contexts in which these images, and thousands like them, were produced, circulated, and viewed. We can situate the representations at the intersection of race, family, and sentiment. Elizabeth Freeman’s portrait and the stories that swirl around it serve as a forceful reminder that Federal Era New England was neither absolutely white nor absolutely free.37 It directs our attention to the ambiguous boundaries that separated the various legal categories of dependency—economic and familial—that obtained in the Early Republic. Elizabeth Freeman was a slave and a wage earner but she was also a family member. The will she dictated shortly before her death in 1829 enumerates her own family. A daughter, a granddaughter, and four great-grandchildren survived her to inherit an estate that included real property, furniture, clothing and jewelry. Of the possessions she bequeathed to her daughter Elizabeth, two had special significance: a “short gown that was my mother’s” and a black silk gown that was “rec’d of my father.” Passed across the generations, the clothing registered Freeman’s identity as a daughter and mother. It tethered Freeman’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, to a family that stretched back to include grandparents. With the legal transmission of her property, Elizabeth Freeman claimed the lineal family that slavery had denied her.38

At the same time that Freeman was preserving and extending a lineal family, she was also a member of the Sedgwick family. To incorporate Freeman into their family imaginary, the Sedgwicks discursively severed her from her own. Neither Henry Dwight Sedgwick nor Catharine Maria Sedgwick acknowledged Freeman’s regard for her father and mother, whose memories she preserved in the clothing they had given her. Henry’s published account of Freeman’s life acknowledged that she was once married, her husband a casualty of the Revolutionary War. He likewise mentioned her surviving child and her “large family of grand-children and great-grand-children.” Although his abolitionist lecture mentioned Freeman’s descendents, it did not dwell on the damage that their mother’s enslavement must have inflicted on the family. Instead, he memorialized Freeman as a servant “who knew her station and perfectly observed its decorum” with none of the “submissive or subdued character” that so often resulted from slavery. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, who never mentioned Freeman’s husband, acknowledged her surviving family only to dismiss them as “riotous and ruinous descendants” given to “reckless consumption.” Such remarks recapitulate predictable stereotypes about African-Americans’ suitability for domestic service and their irresponsibility, fiscal and otherwise. But they also register a plaintive enviousness. “Mumbet” may have been the “main pillar” of the Sedgwick household (in Catharine’s terms); she may also have been a servant “whose fidelity to her employers was such as has never been surpassed” (in Henry’s).39 Yet the fact remains that Freeman left that household and those employers in 1808, choosing to support her own household and serve her own family. Memoirs and fantasies notwithstanding, Elizabeth Freeman’s priorities diverged from those of the Sedgwicks.

What, then, were the conditions under which Susan Ridley Sedgwick painted Elizabeth Freeman in 1811? Did Freeman even sit for the portrait? How was the miniature displayed, and to whom? Who claimed ownership of the likeness, of “Mumbet”? Here, it is suggestive to consider the possibility that the painting was a gift, given from one Sedgwick to another. That symbolic exchange would have recalled a literal one. As children, Elizabeth Freeman and her sister were gifts, given by their owner, Pieter Hogeboom, to his daughter, Annetje, to celebrate her wedding.40 Freeman entered the household of Captain John Ashley, the man she would later sue for freedom, as dowry, as a gift exchanged between white kin to symbolize status, obligation, and love. Withal, it is hard not to read Freeman’s portrait as a stunning act of appropriation, in which the possession signaled by an ivory miniature stood in for the possession of an African-American woman, a former slave, a “mother.” This appropriation depended upon the strikingly racialized representation of “Mumbet.” But it also depended upon a set of historically specific social relations, upon the murky distinctions between “slave,” “servant,” and “family” that survived the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts for several decades.

Betsey Way Champlain’s self-portrait allows us to glimpse the tangle of race, family, and sentiment from a different perspective. It is governed by an aesthetic that is as deeply racialized as the conventions governing the likeness of Elizabeth Freeman. The delicately stippled complexion reminds us that as both an ideology of race and a system of visual signifiers, nineteenth-century “whiteness” emerged not only in a distinctly American opposition to “blackness” (or, for that matter, “redness”) but also out of transatlantic discourses on aesthetics, gentility, and natural science. Considered alongside thousands of similar miniatures produced in the Early Republic, Champlain’s painting suggests that the visual codes of whiteness were elaborated and disseminated not only in “public,” in the realm of politics and work but also in “private,” in the bosom of the affectionate family.41

Betsey Way Champlain’s self-portrait should also caution us against underestimating the complexity of those family affections. Like so many other nineteenth-century ivory miniatures, the painting was undertaken as a gift. Although it never reached its intended recipient, Mary Way, it was eventually passed to the artist’s daughter, Eliza Way Champlain, who in turn gave the painting to her daughter. Rather than reinforcing familial bonds within a single generation, it reinforced them across several generations. In the end, the painting realized its purpose: it became a symbol of family, a symbol of love. But it was also a symbol of unrealized aspiration. Betsey Way Champlain could never have scraped up the cash to commission such a painting. Most of the time, she barely managed to make her rent. It was only her skill, her labor, that made the gift possible. Just as the image flattered her likeness—“keeping probability in view” while erasing the marks of time and care—it flattered her rank and her income. Her gift surely recalled the gifts that circulated among her neighbors and friends, from the miniatures that she herself had painted for her patrons to bestow upon others to the exquisite portrait painted by Nathaniel Rogers that she used as a “modle” for her own masterpiece. The sisters’ planned exchange recalled exchanges witnessed from a distance, a distance defined by fortune and by gender. On ivory, if not in life, Betsey Way Champlain could claim more than gentility; she could claim the security that went with it. Like the portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, Betsey Way Champlain’s self-portrait testifies to power of love, to the persistence of family mythologies, to the magic of portraiture. And like the portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, Betsey Way Champlain’s portrait reminds us that love—like the gifts that concretize it—is always a creature of history and history’s contradictions.