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Fine Art Reviews

A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic

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Location: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC
Event Date: August 2012
Review Date: 3rd August 2012
Reviewed By: Linda Troost, Washington & Jefferson College
Review Citation: Linda Troost, review of A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic
Date Accessed: 30th July 2015
If you find yourself in Washington, DC, with half an hour to spare, you may wish to take in A Will of their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic at the National Portrait Gallery until 2 September 2013. An accompanying symposium is scheduled for 19 October 2012. The small exhibit, sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art, is located in the alcove on the main floor of the gallery, and all but two of the images are from the NPG’s collection. Curators Wendy Wick Reaves and Frank Goodyear have selected images of eight American women noted for ‘sowing the seeds of future progress’ in women’s rights. The portraits are in a variety of media, and the women represent a range of achievements.


Several women worked behind the scenes during the American Revolution. A highly detailed oil by Charles Willson Peale depicts Anne Catharine Hoof Green (c. 1720–75) in her professional capacity as editor and printer of the Maryland Gazette and official printer for the General Assembly of Maryland: appropriately, she holds a copy of the Gazette in the portrait. Patience Wright (1725–86), the US’s first native-born sculptor, achieved renown in both the colonies and in London’s royal circles for her work in tinted wax: her 1775 effigy of William Pitt can still be seen in Westminster Abbey’s museum. She also spied for Benjamin Franklin, sending him British secrets inside wax busts. Her portrait, alas, is not in wax, but in painterly oil. However, that of Margaret Todd Whetten (1739–1809) is – a modest bas-relief profile of pigmented wax and oil paint on glass. A widow, Whetten provided food and clothing to those imprisoned by the British during their occupation of New York. Her home also served as a refuge for American spies. It is interesting to see included here a wax portrait, a once-popular medium, especially for women artists, but now rarely seen except at Madame Tussauds.


Whetten’s presence in this exhibit, like that of Abigail Smith Adams (1744–1818), reminds us that eighteenth-century women could play significant roles in national politics without being politicians. The anonymous portrait of Mrs. Adams, done while her husband, John, was serving as vice-president, is not widely reproduced but, in my opinion, shows the character of the woman who wrote such insightful letters to her husband better than the more famous Gilbert Stuart image. We see her intelligence and respectability but also the look of one who has endured much. It is a painting worth close study and, for most visitors, more accessible in DC than in its usual home of Cooperstown, New York.


In addition to Adams, two other Boston-area writers are featured. A large oil of Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), on loan from the Terra Foundation, is the centerpiece of the show. Painted by the well-established Boston artist John Singleton Copley shortly after the sitter’s first marriage at age 18, the portrait shows little of the feminist. Instead, we see the daughter of a prominent family wearing a studio costume of white satin drapery and holding a basket of roses. But in the sitter’s direct look, so unlike the averted gazes of the other women in this exhibit, we see the future author of On the Equality of the Sexes. In contrast is the well-known image of her contemporary, Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–84). The engraved frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral shows the poet at work. She gazes thoughtfully into the distance, perhaps refining a phrase or searching for a rhyme, and her dress identifies her as a servant – a valued one, but a servant nonetheless. In every way, this portrait is the opposite of Murray’s and reinforces social hierarchy: the wealthy Judith, depicted on an expensive canvas, demands our attention; the slave Phillis, on a small page, is modest and humble.


The final two women in the exhibit are represented in collages of engraved medallion profiles by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774–1821), a convert to Roman Catholicism after a stay in Italy, is the United States’s first native-born Roman Catholic saint and namesake of many colleges. She founded the religious community of the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and also Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, the nation’s first Catholic school for girls. Theodosia Burr Alston (1783–1813), less well known, represents a woman of educational achievement whose father made sure that she studied traditional male subjects such as Latin, Greek, English composition, and mathematics even as she acquired female accomplishments. Daughter of the future vice-president and duelist Aaron Burr, her presence among the much older figures in Saint-Mémin’s physionotrace collage is unusual – her likeness was taken when she was 13 years old – and suggests that she had already achieved renown as her widowed father’s society hostess in New York.


This NPG exhibit commemorates many American firsts for women – first woman to publish a newspaper, sculpt professionally, self-publish a book, be canonized. It brings women to our attention beyond the usual suspects and displays some images we do not often see. Those born closer to the start of the eighteenth century are not especially famous, so this exhibit does well to showcase them. Some are noted for having achieved within traditionally male professions, others by working within conventional feminine roles, but each woman honored here has demonstrated that she had a will of her own.


If a trip to Washington, DC is not in your plans, the entire exhibit is online at


'A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic' is at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, from 20 April 2012 to 2 September 2013.

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