Manuscript Collection: Jane Stuart

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 3:15pm -- mfarias

Small collections can provide a wealth of information about a person’s character, preserved for us in a few scribbled lines in a note written over a hundred years ago. Such is the case with our manuscript collection of Jane Stuart (1812-1888), American painter and daughter of Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). In the collected letters at the Redwood, she entreats a woman to join her for lunch and sends several notes of regret to another and in doing so, helps to sketch out an idea of who she was as a person, beyond her well-known artistic talents.

 

Reprint of a photograph of Jane Stuart, owned by Mrs. Frederic Sands
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

Jane Stuart was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1812 to Gilbert and Charlotte Coates Stuart. Her father was well-known for his portraits, especially of President George Washington, whose likeness he copied hundreds of times throughout his life. Gilbert Stuart was born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island and moved to Boston in 1805 where he died in 1828. Not long after his death, Jane moved with the rest of the family back down to Rhode Island, settling in Newport where she lived until she died in 1888. As an artist, she learned young by studying her father’s technique and regularly completing his unfinished paintings for him. After his death, she received many commissions for miniature and full-size copies of his most popular works, which she completed alongside her own paintings and portraits done in her own style. Her works are held by art museums across the country and the Smithsonian holds an artist file of photographs of her works for reference. 

 

Reprint of a photograph of Jane Stuart, owned by Mrs. Frederic Sands
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

In one of the three undated letters, Jane Stuart sent her regrets to Mrs. Powell that she could not join her for dinner on that Christmas evening. She opens, “My sweet kind friend, how can you annoy me so much as to invite me to dine with you today? It has really vexed me exceedingly, makes me feel as if I was the most unlucky mortal in the world, that I cannot accept this kindness, but I am most sincerely disappointed (by the by this is the most superfluous remark to make) as you know how delighted I always am to partake of your hospitality.” Her over-the-top remarks are intentionally charming, attempting to take away the sting of her refusal. It is not known to us who exactly Mrs. Powell was, but we can hope they were truly friends and would have dinner again some other day. The letter continues from there, “And then to add another aggravation by sending me that exquisite little bijou of a present, when you know perfectly well I cannot make any return but sincere love. Remember me to my kind friend Aesculapius who I believe is related to Apollo. With a hundred thanks for a merry Christmas and happy New Year - excuse this scrawl written in haste and believe me, Faithfully yours, Jane Stuart.”

 

 

With another woman, Mrs. Schott, Stuart seeks out her company and dares her to refuse her invitation, writing, “I hope Miss Tucker has told you I would like you tomorrow to Lunch with me. If you do not come I shall be very much disappointed. Pray excuse this scribble and believe me yours, Sincerely, Jane Stuart.” A much shorter and to the point note, asking for company this time rather than refusing it. 


Invitation to Mrs. Schott, Gift of Carl Thorp Nov 1, 1987
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


Can there really be much gained from such short missives? Perhaps not on the surface, but understanding who she was and her relationship with the women in her orbit can provide insight into her education, her social standing, her own inclinations towards socializing, etc. On their own, the letters may not reveal much beyond a few charmingly written phrases, but combined with research, it is possible to learn more about figures from the past like Jane Stuart.