We don’t know if the Bartow family had an interest in art, but we do know that they lived in the midst of artists, collectors, and a thriving art market.
Robert Bartow and Maria Lorillard married in 1827 and set up their household in New York City. Like most well-to-do couples, they likely purchased pictures—such as oil paintings and engravings—for the walls of their home. The art market was flourishing at the time of the Bartows’ marriage, and New York City was chock-full of auctions, dealers, and exhibitions. Fashionable Americans were especially enamored of European art, an infatuation that continued for most of the nineteenth century. In addition, the founding of the National Academy of Design in 1825 and movements in American art such as the Hudson River School helped forge a strong national artistic identity. Subsequently, the Bartows had numerous choices when it came to decorating their parlor walls.
Portraits allowed affluent people to possess likenesses of family members, which was especially meaningful in the days before photography. Portraits were also status symbols that proclaimed lineage or connections to distinguished relatives. In addition, the skill and prestige of the artist—and the sitter’s dress, setting, and props—were meant to impress and inform the viewer about the family’s wealth, education, taste, and other attributes.
This brings us to a lost portrait. A dark and grainy photocopy of a photograph in the Bartow-Pell archives is our only visual record of a portrait of an older woman identified as Robert Bartow’s mother, Clarina Bartow (1763–1839), who is depicted wearing a cap of a style popular in the 1830s. She moved from Westchester to Fishkill in 1806 with her husband and children and died at the Brooklyn home of her son Edgar in 1839. The photocopy bears a notation that names the artist as Asher B. Durand (1796–1886). Although he is best known as an engraver and Hudson River School landscape painter, Durand painted portraits in the 1830s. Expert scholarship is needed to confirm or debunk this attribution (the original portrait would help, too!).
Clarina Bartow’s portrait is mentioned in the will of the Bartows’ son Reginald Heber (1842–1888), who was her grandson. He died on October 13, 1888, at the age of forty-six.
I devise that the Portrait in oil of my Grandmother Clarina Bartow now in the possession of my sister Catharine B. Duncan . . . shall remain the property of persons related to me by blood and for that reason I give the same to my brother Theodoret Bartow directing him to dispose of the same by will to and among his issue and for want of such disposition . . . I give said articles to my oldest sister living at the death of said Theodoret Bartow . . .
Clarina Bartow née Bartow married her second cousin Augustus Bartow (1762–1810) in 1786. Robert was the couple’s first son to live to adulthood, and according to his nephew Evelyn P. Bartow in 1878, Clarina’s “portrait is in the possession of the family of her eldest son, Robert, of Pelham, N.Y.” Robert Bartow died in 1868, and he probably left the portrait to his eldest son, George. After George’s death in 1875, Reginald Heber likely inherited the painting. Although it is possible to partially trace subsequent ownership of the portrait using Reginald’s will, it appears that the Robert Bartow family line has died out, and this important family treasure is lost. Where could it be today?
Asher B. Durand, who purportedly painted Clarina Bartow’s portrait, was a close friend of the English-born artist Thomas Cole (1801–1848), who is known as the father of the Hudson River School. Both men were also among the founders of the National Academy of Design. On November 22, 1836, Thomas Cole married Robert Bartow’s first cousin Maria Bartow in the parlor of Cedar Grove in the Catskills, which belonged to the bride’s uncle and became the couple’s home.
In 1846, Robert Bartow sold a parcel of his land to the prodigious art collector and future painter of Luminist landscapes James Suydam (1819–1865) and his sister Letitia. (Luminist painters used light and atmosphere to produce serene images of nature.) Suydam was from a wealthy family and had recently returned from a three-year European Grand Tour. By 1848, the Suydams had settled in next door to the Bartows. “The adjoining estate, Oak-shade, is the property of James A. Suydam, Esq.,” wrote local historian Robert Bolton Jr. “The house is a very beautiful specimen of the Italian villa style. The south front commands a fine view of Pelham neck and the Sound.” The 1850 census records the artist, several of his siblings, and their mother living there, but the Suydams sold the property in 1855.
James Suydam was in his thirties when he began the transformation from amateur to professional artist. His earliest known work, according to the 2006 exhibition publication Luminist Horizons, is a drawing now in a private collection that is dated 1848 and entitled Going Fishing. The setting, with water in the distance, resembles the landscape around the Suydam and Bartow estates. In Luminist Horizons, Katherine E. Manthorne quotes Suydam’s mentor and friend, the artist Miner Kellogg (1851): “He [Suydam] set up his easel at home in Pelham and made his first essays in oil painting from Nature.” But it wasn’t until 1861 that Suydam was made an Academician of the National Academy of Design. The artist also assembled a significant collection of more than ninety American and European paintings, which he bequeathed to the National Academy at his death in 1865, along with an endowment to be used for the Academy’s art school.
The Bartows’ neighbors also included the Reverend Robert Bolton (1788–1857) of the Pelham Priory, Anne Jay Bolton, and their artistic Anglo-American family of thirteen children. In 1843, William Jay Bolton (1816–1884) designed the Adoration of the Magi at Christ Church, Pelham (where the Bartows occasionally worshipped), which is the first known figural stained-glass window in the United States.
A few years later, Jay and his brother John (1818–1898) executed a large program of windows for the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, in a building designed by Minard Lafever and funded by Robert Bartow’s brother Edgar John Bartow (1809–1864).
William Jay Bolton was also a painter and Associate of the National Academy of Design whose teacher was the Academy’s president Samuel F. B. Morse. On April 22, 1843 (coincidentally or not, the foundation stone of Christ Church was laid about a week later), Jay invited Morse to Pelham, but the older artist was unable to accept even though he “should be glad to luxuriate amidst its spring flowers,” according to a letter in the archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. Jay, John, and their brothers also excelled at woodcarving, and some of their sisters were accomplished watercolorists and floral painters. Their father was an enthusiastic art collector, and the family’s sprawling Gothic Revival mansion was full of art, antiques, and all manner of collectibles, including paintings such as a portrait attributed to Thomas Gainsborough (see Blake Bell’s blog post for more).
John Hunter (1778–1852) lived near the Bartows in his grand mansion on Hunter’s Island, where he entertained his friend President Martin Van Buren. Hunter was well known for his celebrated collection of Old Master paintings, and, by 1850, he had amassed almost four hundred oil paintings, almost all by European artists. Robert Bolton Jr. described Hunter’s house in 1848: “The principal rooms, together with a large picture gallery, are hung around with an extensive collection of paintings by the best masters.” Bolton remarked on works said to be by Raphael, Poussin, and Rembrandt, among others. The collection was auctioned off in New York City by Hunter’s heirs in 1866. Works offered for sale were said to be by artists such as Fragonard, van Dyck, and Rubens, but it is unknown if all were authentic because dubious attributions and copies passed off as originals were common problems in the nineteenth century.
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe (1828–1887) was related to the Bartows through Maria Lorillard Bartow. She also attended the Boltons’ school for young ladies at the Pelham Priory. Miss Wolfe had an enormous fortune and was a great collector and patron of the arts. She was especially interested in nineteenth-century European paintings, and French works in particular, many of which she commissioned directly from the artists. Although today some of the painters she championed have been relegated to the sidelines, many were extremely popular at the time. She bequeathed about 150 pictures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art upon her death.
Margaret Highland, Historian