In the 1920s, an elderly woman from Liberty, Missouri, gave her niece two rolled, damaged canvases. One, she said, depicted the niece’s grandfather, James Turner Vance Thompson (1797-1872); the other, one of his three wives.
In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for a man to bury two wives and marry a third who outlived him. That was the case with Judge Thompson. Thompson married his first wife, Ruth Roberts (1806-1824), in Todd County, Kentucky, on April 25, 1822, when she was 15. Before two years passed, she was dead. Thompson married his second wife, Margaret Maben (1806-1849), also from Todd County, about a year later. She was 18. They moved to Missouri’s western border before 1830. In their 25 years of marriage, Margaret gave birth to ten children. She died giving birth to the last child in 1849. Only nine months later, in April 1850, Thompson married Emily Warner Drew (1816? -1899). They had two children together, a son and a daughter. Their daughter was the aunt who brought the two portraits to my client’s grandmother. Which woman was the wife depicted in the portrait. Ruth, Margaret, or Emily?
Portrait dating is a sometimes overlooked aspect of portrait subject identification. The easiest clue to follow is fashion style. Clothing in a portrait may look old-fashioned now, but at the time, the apparel was fresh and new. People of the 19h century followed fashion trends as avidly as they do today, especially those who could afford to have their portraits painted. Men’s collars had to be of the proper height and cut, ties the proper width, and facial hair cut in the current style. Women’s fashions had to conform to the shapely trend whether the style was voluminous hoop skirts or sculpted corsets and bustles. An extreme fashion statement can pinpoint the date of a painting’s creation within a year. Careful research can narrow the date down to a specific season.
When I dated the painting of the woman, I discovered the fashion and hairstyle perfectly fit the summer of 1845. Note the width and cut of the lace collar and the nearly identical hairstyles. Fashion plates were helpful, but even more significant was the similarity with a Bingham portrait, Rebekah Hood (Mrs. Charles Harper Smith). Descendants of the Smith family own papers that document that July 24, 1845, in Boonville, Missouri, George Caleb Bingham completed paintings of Rebekah Smith, and her husband, Judge Charles Harper Smith.
But, in 1845, my client’s great-great-great-grandmother Margaret was 43. The woman in the portrait looked younger. The family member whose age best matched the portrait was J. T. V. Thompson’s oldest daughter, Mary Jane Thompson (1827-1846). In 1842, at the age of 15, Mary Jane had married Thomas W. W. DeCourcy (1818-1865). She was only 19 when she died in childbirth in 1846. The portrait was not a wife of J. T. V. Thompson, bu his oldest daughter. The painting took on even greater meaning for her great-great granddaughter.