Artifact Corner: Portrait of Betsey Delord

Hi everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at this portrait of Betsey Delord. This portrait has long been a bit of a conundrum. This portrait of Betsey was painted by Abraham Tuthill in 1818. Henry Delord had portraits painted of himself, his wife Betsey and his daughter Frances Henrietta. Henry’s portrait and Frances Henrietta’s portraits look very accurate for the time period of 1818, but Betsey’s does not. So, what happened to Betsey’s painting?

In 1818 women’s fashion was still very much in the Regency period. Empire waists, high busts, and owing fabrics. Women’s dress shapes are starting to bell slightly, as opposed to being a very straight silhouette in the earlier Regency period. Necklines in this period were commonly square or maybe a slight v neck. Now, looking at Betsey’s portrait, you can see that she has a more natural waist line, her garment is not an empire waist. The neckline on her dress is also what we would call a sweetheart neckline, not the square neckline of the Regency. So, what the heck is going on with this portrait? The museum raised the funds, and had Henry and Betsey’s portraits conserved in ?2013?. During the conservation process, the organization performing the work used radiography to better understand the portrait of Betsey. Radiography is basically an X-ray of the portrait. It can allow the conservators to see the different layers of paint, and sometime reveal a wholly different image than what we see on the surface. When they did the radiography, this is what they saw!

This is the original portrait of Betsey. Here you can clearly see the empire waisted gown with cap sleeves and long gloves completely indicative of the Regency period. The hidden portrait is pretty incredible. But, it begs the question, why was this painted over? Why cover up this beautiful portrait? In the 1830’s Betsey, along with many others in the United States were undergoing a religious revival. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Second Great Awakening swept across the United States, leading to a growing desire for social reforms like the abolition of alcohol and slavery. Betsey’s religious convictions became stronger as she got older. Also, fashions had changed dramatically. The Romantic era saw natural waist lines, a sweetheart neckline, very similar to Betsey’s, long sleeves, and bell shaped skirts. So, we believe, Betsey had the portrait altered to suit the new fashions of the time, and to give her a bit more modesty. Photography was still in its infancy, and having a portrait painted was very expensive, but having an existing portrait modified, would be a far more cost effective way of updating your likeness.

The mystery of this portrait is finally revealed, and gives us a unique glimpse into Betsey. This is a beautiful portrait, that is made all the more special by it’s hidden past, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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