Artist: Sarah Miriam Peale
Commentary by Heather Belnap Jensen
Assistant Professor of Art History, Curatorial Studies
The pendant portraits of Patience Cole Cortland and her husband, James Grant Cortland, were typical of the age. Early nineteenth-century portraits of members of the upwardly mobile middle class portrayed sitters as respectable, prosperous individuals, and this is certainly the case with the meticulously rendered representations of the Cortlands. Significantly, these representations conform to gendered formulae in portraiture. The self-possessed James Cortland cuts a striking figure in his beautifully tailored, dark suit—the newly codified uniform of the male bourgeoisie—which in turn serves to throw his strong, capable hands into relief. His face is squarely set, his brow slightly furrowed, as if to indicate that he is an intelligent, determined man, and his steady gaze confidently meets that of the viewer. His wife, Patience Cortland, is presented as an engaging, albeit less authoritative, figure. Her entire visage is softer and more pliant than her husband’s, and her expressive dark eyes are warm and inviting rather than commanding. With her costume, she becomes the means by which the family’s material success is displayed—the rich velvet dress, accessorized with an assortment of accoutrements, including an elaborately embroidered and fringed shawl, painted fan, lace collar, gold broach, and a cap festooned with ribbons, roses, and lace—attest to the wealth of the Cortland family.
While these portraits were conventional, the portraitist, Sarah Miriam Peale, was anything but that. She was born into an illustrious family of painters whose patriarch, Charles Willson Peale, believed in women’s intelligence and capacity, and thus encouraged all members of the family, including his niece Sarah, to pursue careers in the arts. Sarah Peale’s privileged position and upbringing provided her access to education and training that was highly unusual for a woman of the nineteenth century. In 1824, she and her sister, Anna Claypoole Peale, became the first women elected as Academicians of the New York National Academy. Sarah Peale became one of the most highly sought-after portraitists of the day and painted a number of distinguished public officials; the Marquis de Lafayette, the French Ambassador to the United States, was among her patrons. Over the course of her fifty-year career, she displayed tremendous business acumen, running several studios in St. Louis and Baltimore. She also garnered numerous awards and honors. Indeed, as a single woman with a commercially and critically successful career, Sarah Miriam Peale was an unwitting pioneer in the New Woman movement and became an inspiration for the next generation of American women artists.