New Information on an Iconic Portrait
The three best known family portraits in the Museum’s collection are those of Henry Delord, Betsey Delord, and Frances Henrietta Delord painted by Abraham Guglielmus Dominey Tuthill in Plattsburgh in 1818. Henry sent these three portraits to his sister Julie in Nismes in the fall of 1820. In his letter of October 24, 1820, Henry wrote: “My portrait and those of my family are already in boxes and ready to ship….These portraits have been painted two years ago – people say they are not flattering but quite natural. The likeness of mine is said to be as perfect as possible – the ones of my wife and of Franciose, which I can vouch, are of exact likeness and strikingly natural. My wife since that time gained weight – she is a very beautiful and elegant woman well bred and educated and I may say quite truthfully and without flattery that her virtues even surpass her beauty.”
Frances Henrietta and her husband, Henry Livingston Webb, reclaimed the portraits of her parents from Aunt Julie’s estate when she visited Nismes on her honeymoon in the fall of 1832. On October 11, Frances and Henry met the old Delord family servant, Marguerite Michael, at “the dwelling of my dear aunt….On entering the room the first thing that caught my eye was the portrait of my dear father. My feelings I cannot describe. It is perfectly preserved as are the others.” The portrait of herself as a little girl Frances Henrietta gave to Marguerite. “I gave her my portrait which affected her much.” On January 5, 1833, Henry Livingston Webb shipped a box containing the portraits of Henry and Betsey Delord from Marseille to his business in Albany. The portrait of Frances Henrietta as a young girl remained in Nismes until 1857, when Frances and Henry’s daughter, Frances Delord Webb Hall, visited Nismes on her own honeymoon, reclaimed the portrait of her late mother, and shipped it back to Plattsburgh.
Granted, most friends of the Kent-Delord House Museum are familiar with this part of the story. Would it surprise you to learn, however, that the painting of Betsey we know and love was substantially retouched by Henry Inman in 1835? Consider this October 10, 1835 letter from Henry Livingston Webb to his mother-in-law Elizabeth Swetland (the former Betsey Delord): “Henry Inman, the celebrated painter, was here [Albany] last evening & this morning took your portrait to put the shawl over the body. It will be made much better by him. I have been wishing to do this for some time. The portrait is to be returned within three weeks. Please write me your wishes. I should value it, but presume that you will think it best to have it hang by the side of the one of the late Mr. Delord. Should our Frances [Delord Webb] live, she will value it highly. Inman spent the evening with me & is one of the best fellows that I have known.”
Abraham G. D. Tuthill was one of the most interesting and able of the itinerant painters who scoured America in search of commissions during the early nineteenth century. Tuthill painted portraits in northern Vermont and throughout upstate New York, as well as in Ohio and Michigan, yet he was virtually unknown in the major cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia – the only places where enduring national reputations in art could be achieved.
Abraham Tuthill was born in 1776 on the northeastern tip of Long Island. His farmer father moved the family to Vermont in 1799, thereby establishing a connection with northern New England that Tuthill would later make his own. Eager to develop a more sophisticated and fashionable style, the young artist spent eight years abroad, seven in England and one in France. When Tuthill returned to New York, probably in 1808, he was still a less accomplished painter than his better known American contemporaries, Rembrandt Peale, John Vanderlyn, and Washington Allston. Before too long, it had become clear that Tuthill could not compete successfully for portrait commissions. Although an improved painter as a result of his years abroad, his style still retained what Alfred Frankenstein has described as the “tough fibre of provincial America.” But if this fibre has little appeal in the large cities, it found a responsive audience in the smaller centers of American society, such as Plattsburgh.
Tuthill may have spent the difficult war years of 1813 and 1814 in Montpelier, Vermont, where his father and siblings had relocated. Between 1815 and 1820, he traversed the route along northern New York from Lake Champlain to Lake Ontario, leaving behind him portraits in Plattsburgh, Watertown, and Sackets Harbor. Beginning in the 1820s, Tuthill followed a new route across the state, made possible by the construction of the Erie and Champlain canals. The duration of his stay in any locale depended largely on the number of portraits to be painted there. In 1840, when his health began to decline, Tuthill returned to Montpelier for the last time, moving in with his sister, Mary Tuthill Vail. Abraham Tuthill died in Montpelier in June 1843.
Henry Inman, the man who “improved” Abraham Tuthill’s portrait of Betsey Delord in 1835, was the leading New York City portrait painter of his era. Born in Utica, New York, on October 28, 1801, he moved with his family to New York in 1812. Two years later he was apprenticed to John Wesley Jarvis. Jarvis painted the fine portraits of James Bloodgood and Lydia Van Valkenburgh Bloodgood – Francis Bloodgood Hall’s maternal great-grandparents – on display in the Museum’s Blue Parlor.
Inman’s relationship with his teacher was cordial, and they traveled together to New Orleans in the winter of 1820-1821. At the conclusion of Inman’s seven years with Jarvis, the two artists were together in Boston. Back in New York, Inman soon began to eclipse Jarvis, gaining the patronage of distinguished families in the city and also becoming a member of the Knickerbocker Society.
Throughout the 1820s Inman was active in the New York City art world. When the National Academy of Design was formed, Inman became its first vice president. In 1831 Inman became partners with Cephas G. Childs, an engraver and lithographer who helped Inman make prints of his portraits. Inman left this partnership in 1832 so that he could devote himself entirely to painting. He worked in New York, Philadelphia, and, in 1844, England, where his subjects included William Wordsworth and Lord Macaulay. Among Inman’s American subjects were President Martin Van Buren and Chief Justice John Marshall.
Inman’s remarkable technical facility enabled him to work quickly and confidently, imparting to his portraits an easy, gracious quality. During his relatively brief lifetime, he was noted for his versatility. There are currently four Inman portraits on display in the Museum: John Hayes Webb, circa 1834-1836, in the Gold Parlor; Henry Livingston Webb, circa 1832, in the Gold Parlor; Frances Henrietta Delord Webb, circa 1836 (a posthumous portrait), in the dining room; and Henry Livingston Webb, circa 1836, in the dining room. Inman died in New York City on January 17, 1846. His friend, Henry Livingston Webb, died in Albany later that same year on October 12.
Frankenstein, Alfred and Arthur K.D. Healy. Two Journeymen Painters (Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, Vermont: 1950).
Tatham, David. Abraham Tuthill: Portrait Painter in the Young Republic (Jefferson County Historical Society, Watertown, New York: 1983).
Written by John Krueger