Mary Jane and Daniel T. MacFarlan sat for this large double portrait about three years after the death of their young daughter Marietta. What is the story behind this handsome couple? And what can the portrait tell us about mourning in the 1850s?
Daniel T. MacFarlan (1828–1897) and Mary Jane Merritt (1829–1905) were married on November 20, 1850, at her parents’ home in Middle Hope, New York, a hamlet on the Hudson River that is part of the town of Newburgh. The young newlyweds set up housekeeping in New York City, where MacFarlan worked as an agent in his father’s real estate office at 180 Tenth Street. Daniel must have had a knack for selling things, because he was also for a time an auctioneer of household goods, with some “auction sales at the residences of families breaking up housekeeping” (New York Herald, May 5, 1855), a role that was probably linked to his work as a real estate agent. While still in his twenties, MacFarlan narrowly lost a hotly contested race for councilman in the 50th district of the 17th ward in 1855. (At that time, New York City’s Common Council consisted of one alderman for each of twenty-two wards, and one councilman for each of sixty districts within the wards.)
In 1860, after a decade of city life, Daniel and Mary Jane moved to Yonkers, where MacFarlan joined other new suburbanites on the daily trek into Manhattan, thanks to the expansion of the railroad. The Art Journal of 1861 described this Hudson River commuter town as “a large and rapidly-growing village about four miles below Hastings and seventeen from New York. Its recent growth and prosperity are almost wholly due to the Hudson River Railway, which furnishes such travelling facilities and accommodations, that hundreds of business men in the city of New York have chosen it for their summer residences, and many of them for their permanent dwelling-places.”
Daniel continued to work with his father for a while, but about 1863, he got into the maple syrup and sugar syrup business, working from an office on East Thirteenth Street. This venture, however, seems to have been short-lived, and at some point in the mid-1860s, he embarked on a more prosaic career as a life insurance agent. By 1872, he was a vice president for Asbury Life Insurance Company at 805 Broadway, which was affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church and named after Bishop Francis Asbury, a founder of American Methodism. The MacFarlans were leading members of the First Methodist Church in Yonkers, where the couple and their surviving daughter, Helen, were active in the Sunday school and missionary societies. Daniel was also a “local preacher” (i.e., lay minister) and served as an officer in the National Association.
As a preacher, auctioneer, and candidate for public office, Daniel MacFarlan clearly had a talent for public speaking. He also enjoyed singing and seems to have had a mellifluous voice. “The children were led in singing on this occasion by the Rev. Daniel T. Macfarlan, who for a number of years had charge of the singing of this [Sunday] school and always took a special delight and pains in training the children. He will always be remembered as the sweet singer of the school.” (Church and Sunday-School Work in Yonkers, 1889) Daniel must have enjoyed being around young people, too.
Daniel’s wife, Mary Jane, grew up on the Merritt family’s ancestral homestead in Middle Hope, New York, “the place being handsomely fitted up, and being one of the most picturesque and attractive in the town of Newburgh” (History of Orange County, New York, 1881). Her father, Daniel Merritt, was a farmer, who was “closely identified with the progressive and evangelical enterprises of the day.” He was also one of the founding trustees of the Middle Hope Methodist Episcopal Church. According to American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985), the landscape in the background of the Macfarlan portrait is believed to depict this small village on the Hudson River where Mrs. MacFarlan’s family had lived for several generations.
Daniel and Mary Jane had two daughters—Helen (1851–1940) and Marietta (1854–1855). The eldest, Helen, continued to live with her parents as an adult and never married. She became a music teacher and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-eight. Marietta died a few days after Christmas on December 29, 1855, of an unknown cause. She is likely the daughter recorded in New York City archives as being born to the MacFarlans on October 5, 1854, which means that she would have been almost 15 months old at the time of her death.
Daniel and Mary Jane must have been doting parents, since they commissioned a double portrait of their girls from the Manhattan-based artist Theodore Pine (1827–1905) before they asked him to paint their own portrait. Perhaps a sense of urgency after the death of Marietta prompted them to capture their children on canvas as quickly as possible. In any case, affluent nineteenth-century American households were often child-centered, and many families of means hired professional portraitists to immortalize their young offspring. These portraits adorned parlor walls and allowed family members and visitors alike to admire (and—in the sad cases of childhood mortality—remember) the young sitters. (In the same spirit, today’s proud moms and dads snap photos with their cell-phone cameras and post them on social media.)
Daniel MacFarlan wrote in his diary that Helen sat for her portrait in June 1856, according to the Met’s American paintings catalogue, which also surmises that Marietta’s likeness in the double portrait of the girls was based on a bust-length portrait of her painted by Pine from a death mask.
So, let’s turn back to the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. MacFarlan to learn something about how they mourned the death of their toddler. Despite the smiles on their pleasant faces, several clues tell us that they are still grieving.
Even though it had been three years since the loss of Marietta, Mrs. MacFarlan is still wearing a black dress. Her white lace collar and undersleeves were permitted after the initial stage of deep mourning but before the period when gray, purple, lavender, and white dresses were allowed. Although there were definite rules about what to wear during the different phases of mourning, the length of time one spent in these garments was up to the individual. “There is such a variety of opinion upon the subject of mourning, that it is extremely difficult to lay down any general rules upon the subject. Some wear very close black for a long period for a distant relative; whilst others will wear dressy mourning for a short time in a case of death in the immediate family. There is no rule either for the depth of mourning or the time when it may be laid aside.” (Florence Hartley, Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, 1860) A closer look at the picture reveals that Mrs. MacFarlan has pinned a popular style of mourning brooch—made of plaited hair (probably taken from Marietta) and surrounded by a border of black enamel—to the center of her collar. However, mourning wear for men was much less restrictive, and black coats—like the one seen here on Mr. MacFarlan—were commonly worn, not just for mourning.
Finally, the portrait is sending another message of grief through flowers. Mrs. MacFarlan tenderly holds a white rose, a red rose, and a red rosebud in her left hand. Roses are a longstanding symbol of love and death. Red roses signify love, while white roses represent innocence and purity. In funerary imagery, the unopened rosebud refers to the life of a child before it has had time to blossom, a young life unfulfilled. These references would have been recognized and understood by nineteenth-century viewers. And what is the bereaved mother holding in her right hand? It’s hard to tell, but her fingers rest lightly over her heart.
Unhappily, the MacFarlans were joined by many other grief-stricken parents in the days before vaccines and antibiotics. Robert and Maria Bartow also endured the all-too-common heartache of the death of a child when their three-year-old daughter Clarina died on December 18, 1835. More tragedy ensued when their son Robert followed his sister to the grave three days later, one day shy of his first birthday. They were two of the Bartows’ eventual nine children.
Margaret Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian
Mr. and Mrs. Daniel T. MacFarlan has been on long-term loan to Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1989.