Jarvis, John Wesley - portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston

This miniature portrait is unsigned but has been attributed to John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840), as that is the artist to which the Gibbes museum has attributed another version of the portrait. The case is not original. However, as it is slightly different to the CAA version, this version is more likely to be by a different artist, perhaps Charles Fraser.

The sitter has been identified as Theodosia Burr Alston (1783-1812), who was the daughter of Aaron Burr, the Vice President who was highly regarded in his day, but today is unfortunately most often remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

The portrait was acquired as an unknown lady, but some time later, a chance review of the CAA 1984 catalogue located the attached identical image on page 154. The colouring of the two miniatures are a little different, but that probably relates to differing methods of image capture. The CAA one is shown here next to the page in the CAA catalogue depicting the miniature. However, as can be seen when comparing the miniatures, the one in this collection is marginally larger, it shows a little more of her dress and the pink wrap is more prominent.

Although the 1984 CAA catalogue lists the miniature as unattributed, more recent research has amended this. (Thank you to CAA for this later information, CAA reference - Theodosia Burr (Mrs. Joseph Alston, 1783-1812), attributed to John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840), Watercolor on ivory, Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Assocation, for further information - The Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina)

Still later an Internet search located a third version on the cover of a biography by Richard Cote, "Theodosia - Portrait of a Prodigy". The version on the cover of the book is stated to be by Edward Greene Malbone, which may be correct as he was active at the time the original portrait would have been painted. Richard Cote advised that this version is heavily restored.

The portrait is not mentioned in the Malbone biography and check-list by Ruel Tolman, but has been attributed to Malbone by the Gibbes.

To "muddy the waters" a little further, in early 2008, some two years after writing the above I have acquired a copy of the 1983 publication "Charles Fraser of Charleston". In this I was intrigued to see a transcription of Charles Fraser's work book and the following references on page 20; "1839 Jan(uar)y Copy of a port. of Mrs Alston for WBP $50" and several entries below that, also in 1839, "Copy of Mrs Alston for T. P. A. $50." There is also a reference at that time to a "Copy of Col. Alston's Port: for WBP".

On page 21 there is a further reference; "Copy of a Portrait of Mrs A for WBP $50" and on the same page; Mr Alston - a copy -- Mrs Alston - Do for Mrs Hayne $100" .

Apart from these references, on page 12 there are references to "Mr Wm A Alston Junior $40" and "D(itt)o a copy $40", on page 15 there is a reference to "Copy of Gen'l Allston's picture $50", and on page 23 "Copy for Mr Alston $45" and on page 24 "Sold a picture to Mr Alston $60".

Thus the Alston family was a regular client of Fraser. It is possible that other miniatures were painted by Fraser for the Alston family or close relatives with names other than Alston, but which are not readily identifiable in Fraser's workbook.

Correspondence in early 2008 with the family descendent of WBP who currently owns the miniature on the cover of "Theodosia" has revealed that TPA stands for Thomas Pinckney Alston (1795-1861) and WBP stands for William Bull Pringle (1800-1881) who married the sister of Thomas, Mary Motte Alston (1803-1884).

The correspondent also advises that the Joseph Alston (1779-1816), who married Theodosia Burr (1783-1812), was an elder step-brother of Thomas and Mary. Thus Theodosia was a step-sister-in-law of Thomas and Mary.

This is a much closer relationship that I had expected when I stumbled across the initials TPA and WBP.

The transcription of Charles Fraser's workbook does not include any direct reference suggesting he painted an original of a Mrs Alston prior to 1838.

The CAA catalogue does include miniatures of Colonel William Alston (1856-1839) and his second wife, Mary Brewton Motte Alston (1769-1838), but comments; "The Alston portraits are a little unusual in Fraser's oeuvre and have led some to doubt their attribution."

There is a further, but different miniature of Mary Brewton Motte Alston by Fraser in the CAA which is said to be a copy of an oil portrait by Samuel F B Morse.

As a result of the above information, there is the possibility that references to Mrs Alston in Fraser's workbook, include Theodosia Alston, and so Fraser painted copies of Theodosia Burr Alston, as well as of her husband Mr (Joseph) Alston, of Colonel Alston, i.e. the father of Joseph, Thomas, and Mary, and of Colonel Alston's wife.

Fraser certainly had the skill to do make copies and in fact his workbook is liberally sprinkled to references to copies of works by other artists, including Benbridge and Robertson.

As a relevant comparison of Fraser's work, shown here is a miniature of a "Young Lady in White" owned by the Yale Art Gallery. Yale has attributed it to Charles Fraser and dates it c1820-1825. The pink coloring is very similar to the miniature of Theodosia and the backgrounds are similar, allowing for the vagaries of the different photographic sources for the images.

As mentioned the Gibbes Gallery has attributed their copy to John Wesley Jarvis, but according to the book "John Wesley Jarvis", Jarvis only ever resided in Charleston for three months during 1820. Therefore he would have needed to paint any copies in this brief three month period.

If Jarvis had painted two versions at that time, one would have expected the painting of the pink wrap to be the same. As the cross-over of the pink wrap is painted in a manner closer to the Fraser example show here, it seems more likely that this version is not by Jarvis, and in that context Charles Fraser seems most likely, as he painted various copies for the Alston family. In support of this is that the background color of this miniature seems closer to the Fraser miniature, than to the Jarvis version in the CAA.

Without close examination by an expert familiar with their work, it is not possible to determine whether Jarvis or Fraser painted this version.

Theodosia Burr Alston had a son who died at an early age. She was then lost at sea on a coastal voyage to New York in 1812 when she was only 29. For more about Theodosia see Theodosia and also THE FATE OF THEODOSIA BURR: The Outer Banks, NC ~ Packet by Eric ... 866

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