For years, she was just a pretty face.
Now, we’re close to identifying the sitter of this elegant portrait by artist Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860).
When this portrait was given to the Museum in 1961 by Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Berger, it was known simply as Portrait of a Lady. The painting had been passed down through a South Carolina family with New York origins and was sold through a gallery in Boston. At that time, the last owners knew this mystery woman was a relative, but weren’t exactly sure which long-lost great-great auntie she was.
Anyone who works with portraits knows how these things happen. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon story. As time and generations pass, people forget just who is in that canvas. It happens to us, too.
Go dig your first-grade class photo out of that box in your basement and try to remember the names of all your classmates in each row. It’s the reason your mother was always after you to write on the back of photographs, back when photographs were on paper instead of your hard drive. Or why we tag images now on Facebook.
But back to the mystery lady. The Museum’s curatorial files didn’t have much information on the painting’s history—that’s also not an uncommon story at museums, sadly—but information is out there to be found.
You see, curators, like mice and flight attendants, tend to travel in packs. So it’s always a matter of knowing which friends in other institutions might be able to fill in gaps in your own knowledge.
Like Dr. Carol Eaton Soltis, Project Associate Curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dr. Soltis just happens to be the world’s expert on painter Rembrandt Peale. Remember him? He’s the artist who painted this mystery portrait. And there probably isn’t a Rembrandt Peale painting out there that she hasn’t seen.
In this case, we hit the jackpot quickly. Dr. Soltis remembered this portrait as being a member of the Knapp family of New York and having been in a descendant’s collection in Beaufort, South Carolina, before it was sold.
From there, a little genealogical research on our end helped fill in the gaps. The descendant in question was John Knapp Hollins, who was the grandson of William Kumbel Knapp of New York. William Kumbel Knapp’s name, although it rolls off the tongue nicely, should not necessarily ring any bells with the general public. But to a curator of portraiture, the name “Knapp” means one of the greatest of all American nineteenth-century group portraits of children. This would be the monumental picture of the Knapp Children of New York City, painted in 1833-34 by the artistic team of Samuel Lovett Waldo and William Jewett. The four Knapp boys, who live today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, were the sons of Shepherd Knapp, one of the city’s wealthiest men.
Little William Kumbel Knapp (third from the left, with the dog) inherited this picture from his father and passed it along to his daughter, who brought it with her when she married and eventually left it to her son, Mr. Hollins. When Mr. Hollins passed away, his widow gave it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1959.
But wait: there’s more.
Two years after donating the kids’ portrait, Mrs. Hollins divested herself of another family portrait. That’s right: our mystery lady, who had also been passed down from her late husband’s relatives and which she consigned to a Boston gallery, who sold it to the Berger family, our donors.
So who is Miss Knapp? Well, we’re not quite sure yet. She was either one of two aunts of the Knapp Children: Lucy or Louise Knapp, sisters of their father, who were born in 1787 and 1790, respectively. Unfortunately, we don’t know which one yet.
But we’re closer than we were in 1961.
Whether Lucy or Louisa, the portrait is a wonderful example of Rembrandt Peale’s painting style in the early 1820s. The artist was born and raised in the greater Philadelphia area and was the son of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), the great painter and museum impresario who, among other things, founded some of the nation’s earliest art museums—and named almost all of his numerous children after famous European artists.
Young Rembrandt first studied with his father, then made a life- and style-changing trip to Paris in 1810. There he came under the influence of Jacques Louis-David (1748-1825), the leader in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French art. You can see David’s influence in Miss Knapp’s portrait. The painting has a cool, neutral background. Then there is also an overall subdued and quiet elegance to her hair and dress that is in keeping with the way the French liked to have themselves represented at this time. The brushstrokes are very precise and carefully blended to give a smooth, glassy surface. All of these traits were just what a wealthy family like the Knapps would have liked around 1821—and were just what Rembrandt Peale supplied.
Come visit Miss Knapp downstairs in the American Collections on the Lower Level. And stay tuned as we work to figure just which sister she is.
William Keyse Rudolph was the Museum’s curator of American art and Decorative arts, focusing on the Museum’s collections of American painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, furniture, silver, and textiles from the 17th to the 20th centuries.