Artifact Corner: Episode 32 – Portrait of Mehitable

Hi everyone, and welcome back to another Artifact Corner. March is Women’s History month, and to commemorate that, we will be spending this entire month focused on the stories of women. The artifact that we will be looking at today is a very special portrait of a woman in our extended family. This is a portrait of Mehitable Nott Webb Deane, painted in 1767 by artist William Johnstone. Mehitable was the mother of Jospeh Webb, Jr., who was the father of Henry Webb. Henry Webb married our Frances Henrietta Delord, and their daughter, Fannie Webb Hall was the last member of our family to live in the house. In this portrait, we see Mehitable with her son, Jesse, who is aged about two years. Mehitable is wearing a glorious gown, most likely made of silk, in a rich earth tone. You can see how the artist has used shading to suggest the sheen of the fabric, and the beautiful draping in the skirt. Let’s learn a bit more about Mehitable and her life.

Mehitable was born in Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1732. Wethersfield was founded in 1634 by a group of puritan men, and quickly grew to be a commercial and shipping hub in New England. Mehitable’s father was a sea captain, involved in trade in the British colonies. The other major industry in Wethersfield in the 1730’s was the growing of red onions. A common saying at the time was that you could “smell Wetherfield before you could see it.” This was the town Mehitable was born into. In 1749 she married a prosperous merchant named Joseph Webb, Sr. They built a large and beautiful house in 1752, and settled into married life. Mehitable gave birth to six children, three boys and three girls. Sadly, in 1761, after 12 years of marriage, Joseph died at the age of 34. Mehitable was now alone with six children to care for.

Life for a single mother in the 18th Century was challenging to say the least. Mehitable continued raising her six children, and kept the home and family business running. Mehitable contracted the services of a lawyer to help her manage the family affairs named Silas Deane. Deane was new to Wethersfield, and an ambitious young man. Two years after Joseph’s passing, Mehitable and Silas Deane were married. A year after they were married, Mehitable gave birth to their first child together, a boy named Jesse. And now we arrive back at the portrait of Mehitable. There is a story behind this painting, that is not only intriguing, but also quite sad.
How much of this story is fact and how much is fiction is hard to fully know. But the legend that has been passed down with this painting is compelling. The story is as follows:

Mehitable and her new husband, Silas, commissioned portraits by William Johnstone. Silas’s painting was completed and Mehitable’s was not. As Johnstone was working on Mehitable’s portrait, she was consistently losing weight, and becoming more gaunt. Mehitable was dying of consumption, or tuberculosis. One of the tell tale signs of this disease was dramatic weight loss. You can see the halo around her face, and the legend states that this was because every time Johnstone had Mehitable sit for him, he would have to repaint her face due to her weight loss. Johnstone never finished this portrait of Mehitable. She likely passed away before he was able to complete it, and Mehitable’s portrait was tucked away, until it was passed down to her great granddaughter, Fannie Webb Hall. Fannie and her husband moved into our home in Plattsburgh, and Mehitable’s portrait came to live in Plattsburgh.

Mehitable died in 1767, at the age of just 35. She left behind seven children. Her eldest child was 18, and her youngest was just 3 at the time of her death. Her eldest son went on to fight in the American Revolution, and was George Washington’s aide-de-camp. Her children and grandchildren went on to be well educated and successful members of early American life who moved in very influential circles. This is a very large and impressive portrait for the time. This piece is in fantastic condition, and a prized artifact in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,