Portrait of William Paterson van Rensselaer, Jr. (1835-1854). Attr. George P.A. Healy (1813-1894) New York, 1843-1844 (PT2010004)
Height 30”(panel), width 24 1/2”(panel) Oil on poplar panel, in a frame of gilt and gesso on pine
This finely brushed painting of a member of the famous van Rensselaer family survives as testament to their fine taste. The dashing subject, William Paterson van Rensselaer, Jr.(1835-1854) was the only son of William Paterson (1805-1872) and his first wife Eliza Rogers(1812-1836), daughter of Benjamin Woolsey Rogers. In 1836, Eliza died suddenly while in Cuba when the boy was only one. Subsequently William Paterson married her sister Sarah Rogers (1810-1887) in 1839.
As the grandson of Stephen van Rensselaer III “The Last Patroon” (1764-1839) and Cornelia Paterson (1780-1844), the vivacious boy resided on the family’s extensive of Rensselearswyck or Van Rensselaer Manor (present-day Bethlehem, outside of Albany), a property deeded in 1630 by the Dutch West India Company to his great-great grandfather, one of the original Directors of the Dutch West India Company. The property flanked the Hudson River near modern day Albany, and was one of the largest in the state.
A painting by Italian artist Francesco Anelli (c. 1805-1878), titled Portrait of Child as Cupid: William Paterson van Rensselaer, Jr. (c. 1836-1837) now resides in the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art and depicts William aged two. The richly theatrical portrait displays young William between heavy red drapes reclining on a miniature gilt empire style recamier. A gilt bow and quiver of arrows lay beside the lounging boy, who evokes the allegorical figure of Cupid. The child perhaps acted as the impetus between his aunt and father’s relationship or he is offered in consolation to the sudden loss of his beloved mother. Anelli’s portrait of young William boldly mixes a bright light cascading down onto his head and the sharp linearity outlining the boy’s form and accompanying paraphernalia in a manner that typifies the artist’s distinctive style.1 William’s father, William Paterson Van Rensselaer, Sr., commissioned the Anelli portrait, and later loaned it to the Albany Gallery of Fine Arts, of which he was a member. The Anelli portrait descended in the family, and was perhaps displayed in the Van Rensselaer Manor House in Albany or the more likely location of Elk Street, William Paterson Van Rensselaer, Sr.’s town home during his first marriage. After inheriting his father’s estates, William Paterson Van Rensselaer, Sr. constructed Beverwyck in Bath (now Rensselaer), New York, where he might have moved the painting.
A portrait of William Paterson Van Rensselaer, Jr.’s aunt, Euphemia White Van Rensselaer (1816–1888) by George P.A. Healy (1813-1894) dated to nearly the same year the portrait of William, 1842, bears a strong familial and painterly resemblance. Completed the year before her marriage to prominent New York lawyer, John Church Cruger, Healy executed the portrait in Paris, where he painted numerous visiting Americans as well as French nobility. Healy lavished attention to Euphemia’s rich clothing, blending the diverse textures of watered-silk skirt, velvet jacket, and lace bonnet in twists and turns to create an emotional portrayal of the sitter’s character against the backdrop of the Roman campagna. Both the portrait of William Paterson van Rensselaer, Jr. and his aunt display stunning grace, simplicity, and vivacity (such as witnessed in the boy’s upthrust arm).
The portrait of William Paterson Van Rensselaer, Jr. shares other commonalities such as the three-quarter view of the sitter, the slight turn and angle in their face, with a strong upper left to right lighting creating a chiaroscuro effect, and the low horizon line in the background. Additionally, in both, the artist pays close attention to representation of clothing, such that in William Paterson Van Rensselaer, Jr. it allows for dating.
During boyhood, boys were dressed in close fitting bodices with attached skirts (tunics) with long trousers underneath. The style of the bodices closely followed the current fashion in women’s bodices, especially the sleeve style. These were worn over wide collared shirts which frequently featured a self fabric ruffle on the edge of the collar. Once a boy became a youth he was dressed in short cropped jackets (“round jacket”) which came to the waist and were usually cut close to the body and trimmed with vaguely military style trims and buttons. These were paired with long trousers and worn with shirts featuring flat, plain collars which were left loose – some times completely unbuttoned – symbolizing the freedom of youth. The William Paterson Van Rensselaer, Jr. portrait follows this fashion, as he is attired in a jacket trimmed in the popular way with three rows of buttons, one providing the center front closure, while the other two are positioned decoratively up the side fronts to the shoulder. Underneath the jacket he wears the typical plain cotton shirt with one button at the neckline, and the collar is allowed to be open and flat with his cravat tied loosely in deference to his age.
The beautifully flowing curly golden locks on William likely were in deference to his youth as boys’ hair was allowed to be unrestrained and a bit longer when young, and then followed their father’s hair style as they approached their teens. His cap appears to be the popular military style known as a “lancers cap” which stayed in fashion throughout the 19th century.
PRICE: Upon request
Clair Perry, Young America: Childhood in 19th-century Art and Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP , 2006) , p. 187, fig. 154: Francis William Edmonds “The New Scholar” 1845 – note hat, shirt and cravat.
Robert Street, “Children of Commodore John Daniel Daniels,” in Young America: Childhood in 19th-century Art and Culture, p.74. The short jackets and matching trousers are circa 1826.
1. Tammis Kane Groft and Mary Alice Mackay, Albany Institute of History & Art: 200 Years of Collecting (New York: Hudson Hills in Association with Albany Institute of History & Art, 1998), 74-75.