Not long after Boston was settled, a wealthy merchant named Robert Gibbs commissioned three paintings of his young children. They are among the finest of the few extant portraits made in New England in the seventeenth century. The artist who painted Margaret Gibbs, the eldest at seven, and her...
Not long after Boston was settled, a wealthy merchant named Robert Gibbs commissioned three paintings of his young children. They are among the finest of the few extant portraits made in New England in the seventeenth century. The artist who painted Margaret Gibbs, the eldest at seven, and her brothers—Robert [69.1227], age four and a half, and Henry, age one and a half (Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, Charleston, West Virginia)—is unknown. However, it is thought that the same artist created likenesses of John and Elizabeth Freake and their baby Mary (in two portraits now at the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) in 1674. The artist is thus known as the Freake-Gibbs painter and is considered one of the most skilled portraitists of the seventeenth-century colonies, possessing an exceptional sense of design and an admirable feel for color. Probably trained in provincial England, the Freake-Gibbs painter worked in a flat style derived from Elizabethan art, which emphasized color and pattern. As was customary for portraits at the time, the children appear like adults in pose and manner. Robert Gibbs, the father, was the fourth son of Sir Henry Gibbs. With Sir Henry’s title and estate destined to pass to his eldest son, Robert opted to make his own fortune in the colonies, emigrating from England to Boston in 1658. He married Elizabeth Sheafe of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1660; in the same year, Elizabeth received a considerable inheritance from her grandfather. Two years later, the couple began construction of a sizeable home on Fort Hill; built at an estimated cost of £3,000, it was one of the most expensive houses in seventeenth-century Boston. Wealth also allowed the Gibbses to commission portraits of their three children in 1670. The depictions of Margaret and her brothers in all their finery are evidence of both the materialism and the prosperity of an early Boston family. In the portrayal of Margaret, the Freake-Gibbs painter meticulously renders the seven-year-old’s lace, needlework, silver necklace, and red drawstrings and bows. Her sleeves have the single slash allowed by strict Puritan sumptuary laws, rules intended to regulate family expenditures and thus prevent people from wasting needed income on extravagant personal ornamentation. Such finery was permitted by Massachusetts law only if the man of the house possessed either a liberal education or sufficient annual income to justify the expense. Margaret’s fan indicates her gender; children of both sexes were dressed similarly until the age of six or seven, and an attribute was used to differentiate between images of boys and girls. The pattern on the floor in both portraits is either black-and-white tile or, more likely, a wooden floor or floor cloth painted to simulate tiling. This checkerboard floor, the dark neutral background, and the inscription of the year and ages of the sitters are indications of seventeenth-century Dutch influence on English and subsequently American art. The period frame of the picture is painted black and is made from eastern white American pine, thus indicating that it was crafted in New England. This text was adapted and expanded by Cody Hartley from Carol Troyen and Janet Comey, Amerika kaiga kodomo no sekai [Children in American art], exh. cat. (Nagoya, Japan: Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2007), and from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Upper right: AE 7 A 1670
Henry Gibbs (brother of the sitter), Boston; by descent to his daughter, Margaret Gibbs (1669-1771); her husband, Rev. Nathaniel Appleton, Cambridge, Mass. By 1934, by descent within the Appleton family to Ethelind Parker Appleton Smith (Mrs. Alexander Quarrier Smith), Charleston, West Virginia; by 1965, by descent to her daughter, Elsie Quarrier Smith Giltinan (Mrs. David M. Giltinan), Charleston; 1995, bequest of Elsie Q. Giltinan to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 13, 1995)
Bequest of Elsie Q. Giltinan