What do you notice first about Miss Grace Ashburner? Maybe her porcelain-white skin highlighted by pink cheeks? Her fashionably powered hair decorated by a shiny blue ribbon? Or maybe her smart green coat with bright brass buttons?
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.
One thing to keep in mind when you look at art is not to trust the labels. Well, I don’t mean the labels that museums put on the wall next to the artwork–we try to make those as accurate as possible. I mean that you should not trust the little metal plaques that sometimes decorate the frames of many older artworks. Why? Let me tell you one an example.
Tucked in one of the side niches in the Museum’s 18th-century French room, Gallery #8, is a painting of a young girl. Decked out in her lace finery, her blonde hair pulled back with a pink ribbon in that matches her pink dress and posed with a basket of flowers, she is the epitome of a blushing sweet child.
The ornately carved frame has a metal label at center bottom that reads “H. DROUAIS, le fils”. You’d assume this must be the artist or the subject. But upon looking at the Museum’s object label, you see that the painting is a likeness of young Charlotte-Françoise DeBure by the artist Catherine Lusurier, who lived from about 1753 to 1781. Neither of them is named Drouais.
So, what’s going on with that frame plaque?