Urgent Museum Notice

Decoding 19th-Century American Portraiture: Isaac and Susan Avery

Blog Category:  From the Collection
Side-by-side portraits of a light-skinned couple with dark hair sitting in formal postures. Gazing outward, they wear dark clothing with light accents and the woman wears a gold earring and pin. They both hold objects: the woman a brocaded red cloth and the man a book.
A light-skinned man with short dark hair sitting on a wooden chair. His right hand is rested on the back of the chair. He is wearing a black jacket with yellow and white shirts inside.
Sarah Miriam Peale, Isaac Avery, 1821; Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 27 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

These images of husband and wife Isaac and Susan Avery are termed “pendant portraits” because they were produced to be companions and likely were displayed in close proximity to one another. The paintings are also excellent examples of the artistic skill of Sarah Miriam Peale (1800–1885). Sarah was the youngest daughter of the American painter James Peale and a part of a great family of American painters, including uncle Charles Willson Peale and cousin Rembrandt Peale. Although she began her career as a painter of still lifes and miniatures, (subjects at the time considered well-suited to the sensibilities of women artists), Sarah found success as a portraitist. She exhibited her first portrait at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1818 and six years later she and her sister, miniaturist Anna Claypoole Peale, became the first female members of the Academy.

A light-skinned woman with dark curly hair tied up on her head is sitting on a wooden chair. Her right hand is rested on the armrest. She is wearing a black dress with a white transparent collar.
Sarah Miriam Peale, Susan Avery, 1821; Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 x 27 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: The Lois Pollard Price Acquisition Fund.

A close look at the Avery portraits in NMWA’s collection illustrates the elements of Peale’s style that made her a successful portraitist. Isaac Avery was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, and it is likely that these portraits were commissioned to commemorate the couple’s marriage. Their elevated socioeconomic status is displayed in their elegant attire: Peale carefully rendered the various textiles of Susan Avery’s costume, her lace collar and cuffs and embroidered shawl, as well as her gold jewelry and luxurious tortoiseshell hair combs. It has been suggested that Isaac Avery may have been a manufacturer of such combs. Peale’s highly realistic style and interest in detail is also visible in Isaac’s portrait, which includes a partially twisted coat button and pages of a dog-eared book that seem to be practically spilling off the surface of the painting. The specificity of the sitters’ depiction stands in marked contrast to the plain background.
In addition to successful merchant families like the Averys, Peale’s sitters included prestigious figures of her time such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and French military officer the Marquis de Lafayette. Sarah Miriam Peale supported herself through her painting and was financially independent throughout her long life.

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