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Portraits! Worcester Portraits
in the American Antiquarian Society Collections

  Among the collections of books, manuscripts, and graphic arts held at the American Antiquarian Society is a group of 164 portrait paintings, miniatures, and sculptures. A fully illustrated inventory of the painted portraits, miniatures and sculpted portrait busts at the American Antiquarian Society is now available online.

  Among the portraits are images of thirty-one Worcester residents in the Society's collections. Several individuals, such as Isaiah Thomas, Mary Stiles Newcomb and Lydia Stiles Foster, are represented by more than one portrait. Thomas's importance as the leading publisher of the Revolutionary era, founder of the American Antiquarian Society, and patriarch of a large family offers abundant reasons why he would be the subject of multiple portraits in a variety of media. The Stiles, Foster, and Newcomb families are notable because they tell another kind of story. This collection of a dozen portraits of three generations of the Stiles family of Templeton and Worcester are all miniatures by Eliza Goodridge, a family friend. Many of these miniatures were on display at the Cantor Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross from November 13 to December 21, 2002.

  The AAS portraits reveal some of the complex relationships of community life. When Isaiah Thomas, the staunch patriot, moved his business to Worcester in 1775, William Paine, a Loyalist, had already left for medical training in Scotland and would return to the colonies as a surgeon in the British Army during the Revolution. Paine and his family moved back to Worcester in 1793, and in 1812, old political sentiments set aside, this physician would join with Isaiah Thomas as one of the founding members of the American Antiquarian Society. Likewise, we learn of the regional and even national importance of some of the sitters. For example, Aaron Bancroft was the minister of the Second Parish in Worcester from 1786 to 1839, but also served as president of the American Unitarian Association from 1825 to 1836.

  Since many of the portraits came to AAS together with manuscript collections or were commissioned by the Society, we have extraordinary information about the circumstances of their production. There are occasional first-person accounts of the process of sitting for portraits as well as important documents revealing the costs of the paintings and even their frames. Newspaper advertisements found in the AAS collection provide documentation about itinerant artists who came to Worcester. In an effort to obtain commissions for one artist, Isaiah Thomas, Jr., placed an advertisement in the September 12, 1804, issue of the Worcester Spy saying that examples of Gerrit Schipper's portraits could be seen in his home or office. Other early nineteenth-century Worcester residents, such as Edward D. Bangs and Isaiah Thomas, traveled to Boston to sit for oil portraits by artists established in Boston studios; later in the century, Stephen Salisbury II went to New York for sittings with Daniel Huntington.

  The research and documentation of the Society's portrait collection were undertaken by Lauren B. Hewes. The previous catalogue of the portrait collection had been published by Frederick Weis in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society in 1946. Hewes's work was published in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society as Volume 111, part 1, and with the addition of twenty-four color plates, as Portraits in the Collection of the American Antiquarian Society (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 2004). These two sources illustrate the entire collection with text and images for each of the portraits. Introductions by Linda Docherty, professor of art history at Bowdoin College, and Hewes, who researched the collection, shed further light on the collection as a whole and an interpretation of institutional collecting. Others who have taken part in this collaboration include Charles Barlow, Georgia B. Barnhill, Megan Bocian, Ellen Dunlap, Christine Estabrook, James N. Heald 2nd, John B. Hench, Henry Peach, Katherine St. Germaine, Caroline F. Sloat, Caroline W. Stoffel, and Therasa Tremblay.

Georgia B. Barnhill and Caroline Sloat

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