Robertson, Walter - portrait of a lady "C V"

This recently acquired miniature portrait of a lady with the initials "C V" has been attributed to Walter Robertson (c1750-1801) and is from his American period. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a goldsmith. He exhibited in Dublin for a number of years and was a leading miniaturist there.

Walter's brother Charles Robertson (1760-1821) was also a miniaturist in Dublin and London, and this collection includes a miniature which has been attributed to Charles, see Robertson, Charles - portrait of a man in a blue c... Their styles can be compared below.

Walter left for London in 1784, but had little success there before returning to Dublin and declaring bankruptcy in 1792. There Robertson became friendly with Gilbert Stuart and in 1793 they moved to New York where Robertson painted miniatures and reportedly also made copies of Stuart's large paintings.

The reason for the attributions of miniatures to Walter Robertson appears to be two one-line comments by William Dunlap (1766-1839) about Robertson making copies of portraits by Gilbert Stuart, one of which reads; "His copies from Stuart's oil portraits pleased very much" and in a note on bottom of the same page; "He painted a miniature of Washington and copied several portraits by Stuart" (see page 118 of History of the Arts of Design).

The comments by Dunlap do not even confirm Robertson's copies were miniatures. Thus they may have been large oil copies. However, if the copies were miniatures, in my opinion it is more likely Robertson painted such miniatures in an oval format suitable for framing and wearing, as was fashionable at the time, rather than rectangular.

Rectangular miniatures were uncommon, if not rare, in Britain before 1810/1815. It seems unlikely Walter Robertson would have used that technique 15/20 years earlier in America.

Harry Wehle himself observed in 1927, "As for Robertson's numerous (sic) copies after Stuart's portraits, of which Dunlap wrote, none have thus far come to light." (NB Dunlap used the word "several", not "numerous" in his one-line comment above.)

Walter Robertson worked in New York and Philadelphia for several years, but then left for India where he died at Futtehpur in 1801 (see Foskett). As he spent so little time in America, his American miniatures are much rarer than those painted in England and Ireland. More miniatures are claimed for him than he painted and hence attributions to him do require a high standard of proof.

Miniatures by Walter Robertson have been described by two authors.

Johnson commented; "Those painted in the United States were all made within three years of one another and vary little in style and technique; faces, too, often tend towards sameness. Portions of the surface that appear to be smooth are actually rendered as a network of very fine hatching and cross-hatching."

Wehle also commented; "Typical of (Walter) Robertson's workmanship are the elegant artificiality of starched frills and powdered hair, the fine cross-hatching of translucent backgrounds and the astonishingly skilful modelling of the heads by means of very fine long brush lines following the facial contours and usually blue in the depressions, notably the eye sockets".

Two other comments about Walter Robertson are made in Dunlap's "History of the art of Design". Dunlap himself says on page 118; "Robertson's style was unique; it was very clear and beautiful, but it was not natural". There may even be a sense of envy by Dunlap as a miniature painter himself, in that comment, as on page 119, Dunlap goes on to say; "Robertson... annoyed Trott. Of Robertson he said, his excellence depended upon the secret he possesed - the chemical composition with which he mixed and used his colors."

Walter Robertson did not sign his work and hence portrait miniatures can only be attributed to him by comparison with other known examples. To assist with this, the colour image of "C V" has been converted to greyscale for easier comparison with two miniatures illustrated in American Miniatures by Henry Wehle and as shown here.

Identifications of the two miniatures, reveal they are of a daughter, Hester Rose Tidyman (>1772-1816) of Charleston who was married on 6 Oct 1794 to John Drayton (1766-1822), Governor of South Carolina, and her mother, Mrs Philip Tidyman (also named Hester Rose) of Charleston, who had married Philip Tidyman on 13 Oct 1772.

Harry Wehle's 1927 comment about the miniature of Hester Rose Tidyman could, apart from eye colour, just as easily apply to the miniature of "C V" ,when Wehle said; "This portrait, showing Hester Rose Tidyman at the age of twenty, is perhaps the most charming of Walter Robertson's works. In it, everything - bright sky, starched frills, translucent flesh, glowing pearls and powdered coiffure of marvellous elaboration - seems to be daintily contrived to play up a lovely pair of brown eyes".

As the two ladies both came from Charleston, it seems possible as Wehle comments, that Walter Robertson visited Charleston. The similarity of style is immediately obvious, so much so that the sitter "C V" could even be related to the ladies.

A further miniature by Walter Robertson and again of very similar style is one shown in color here of Elizabeth Pollock Hartigan. This is part of the Portrait Miniature Collection in the National Museum of American Art, see Mrs. Elizabeth Pollock Hartigan

Unfortunately, the sitter in this miniature now added to the Artists and Ancestors Collection is unidentified, although the reverse does contain ornate gold initials which read "C V". There is a substantial lock of hair under the initials. Thus, with modern DNA techniques, it may be possible to identify the sitter by the initials and then confirm the sitter through DNA analysis.

Thus a New York, Philadelphia, or perhaps Charleston resident of 1795 with the initials "C V" would be a likely start point. From the comment below, a relation of Catherine van Rensselaer, is a possibility for the sitter.

Also within the Portrait Miniature Collection in the National Museum of American Art is this miniature, attributed to Walter Robertson, which may possibly be a relation, as the sitter's maiden name had the initials "C V", it is described as Mrs. Philip John Schuyler (Catherine van Rensselaer) (1734-1803).

The miniature is attributed to Walter Robertson, but I confess a personal opinion, that this seems a little unlikely attribution. Walter Robertson was working in America from 1793 to 1796 and I have not seen any references that rectangular miniatures were being painted there at this time.

The case may not be original, but it does date between 1810/1820 which seems a more likely date for a rectangular miniature, with the miniature itself being copied from an earlier large oil portrait at that time. 1287

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