Rebecca Warren Brown (1789-1855) was the daughter, wife, sister, niece, and mother of distinguished physicians. Her father, Dr. John Warren, was Boston's leading surgeon, a founder of Harvard Medical School and the younger brother of General Joseph Warren, also a doctor, who had died...
Rebecca Warren Brown (1789-1855) was the daughter, wife, sister, niece, and mother of distinguished physicians. Her father, Dr. John Warren, was Boston's leading surgeon, a founder of Harvard Medical School and the younger brother of General Joseph Warren, also a doctor, who had died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Rebecca married a doctor in 1814, Dr. John Ball Brown (1784-1862), who would become a specialist in orthopedic surgery and whose patients would travel from as far as the Sandwich Islands to receive his care. Rebecca's older brother, John Collins Warren, was a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital and performed the first operation using ether as an anesthesia in 1846. Surrounded as she was by such eminent members of the medical profession, Rebecca Brown's own accomplishments were overshadowed. She was a prolific writer; using the self-effacing pseudonym "A Lady of Boston," Brown authored numerous books beginning in 1813, some of which were meant for children. These include "The School, or, A Present from a Preceptress to Her Pupils on the First of January 1813"; "Isabel and Louisa, or, Some Account of Two Little Girls Who Lived in Boston" (1813); "Tales of the Fireside" (1827); "The Faithful Servant, A Moral and Religious Story for Children" (1828); "Tales of the Emerald Isle" (1828); "Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, a Native of Africa, Who was Enslaved in Childhood, and Died in Boston, January 3, 1815" (1832); "Stories about General Warren" (1835); and "The Two Sisters, or, Love and Pride: a True Story of the Revolution" (1855). Rebecca Warren Brown is best remembered for her volume about her uncle General Joseph Warren, "Stories about General Warren: in Relation to the Fifth of March Massacre, and the Battle of Bunker Hill." Told in the form of a dialogue between a mother and her children, Brown recorded her uncle's activities leading up to the Revolution and his death during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Brown published her narrative in 1835, at the time when there was renewed interest in the event and attention was focused on the granite obelisk, known as the Bunker Hill Monument, then under construction in Charlestown, Massachusetts to commemorate the battle. Perhaps the most unexpected of Rebecca Warren Brown's books was her "Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, a Native of Africa, Who was Enslaved in Childhood, and Died in Boston, January 3, 1815...Aged 65 Years," which she published in 1832. Brown had evidently become acquainted with Chloe Spear when both were members of the Second Baptist Church of Boston. Brown chronicled Spear's life of enslavement, eventual manumission, and successful management of a boarding house in Boston, framing her life in religious terms. She described Spear's spiritual journey and extolled the Christian fellowship meetings that Spear held in her house, to which she invited worshippers of all races. Through her editorial comments, Brown argued against the practice of slavery, promoting a decidedly abolitionist message. Brown's motivation for writing her earlier books is made clear in the preface to "Tales of the Emerald Isle" (1828): "I have been accused of writing books for the purpose of making money; if this be a crime, I plead guilty to the charge in part, as I find that, unless I put my shoulder to the wheel of Fortune, it makes no evolution in my favour." Rebecca Brown's interest in making money may be ascertained from the obituary notice for her son, Arnold Welles Brown, who was killed while walking on railroad tracks at the age of 25 in 1852. The death notice disclosed that while Arnold was a student at Boston Latin School, "his father lost all his property by a fire which destroyed a large laundry and two dwelling houses belonging to him. His [Arnold's] hopes of going to college were therefore destroyed, and he was placed in a whole sale dry-goods store in Boston." Arnold Brown later earned the funds necessary for his Harvard education by working on board a whaling vessel (Joseph Palmer, "Necrology of the Alumni of Harvard College," 1851-51 to 1862-63, Boston: J. Wilson and Son, 1864). In addition to supplementing the family's income, Rebecca was busy raising children, only three of whom lived to full adulthood. She lost her first-born son, John Warren Brown, to Pott's disease at the age of 14 years, and an infant, George, during this same period. In about 1826, when Rebecca and her husband (see 14.424) decided to have their portraits painted, they turned to Chester Harding, a self-taught artist who had just returned from a three-year sojourn in England and Scotland. Harding had the Boston portraiture market to himself, taking over from the elderly Gilbert Stuart (Stuart died in 1828) and James Frothingham, who had moved to Brooklyn in 1826. Harding's relatively broad brush strokes in his rendering of Rebecca's elegant costume reflect his admiration for the work of Thomas Lawrence, a major portraitist of the period, whose work he had seen in England. However, his likeness of Rebecca was straightforward, and unlike Lawrence, he did not idealize his sitter. While Harding did not flatter Rebecca in his portrait, he did convey her dignity and intelligence. Harding was aware of Brown's activities as a writer and was listed as a subscriber to her "Tales of the Fireside," published in 1827. Rebecca is dressed in the latest style. Her dress has a small waist (achieved by a whalebone corset) and probably a full skirt, supported by many petticoats, balanced on top by the newly popular full, gigot sleeves. Her neckline is filled in with a separate collar most likely made of finely-worked cotton or linen. She is draped in an ermine-lined, silk taffeta mantle or cape, which also appears in Harding's portrait of Mrs. Thomas Brewster Coolidge (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and thus may have been a studio prop. Rebecca's hair is fashionably parted down the middle with sausage side curls arranged at the temples and topped by an elaborate lace cap, probably of blonde silk lace, trimmed with silk gauze ribbons. (I am grateful to Lauren Whitley, Assistant Curator, Textiles and Fashion Arts, MFA, for her analysis of the sitter's costume.) Harding received much of his patronage upon his return from Europe from figures associated with the Bunker Hill Monument Association. In addition to Rebecca Warren Brown and her husband, Harding's sitters included Association members Loammi Baldwin, 2nd, (private collection; Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and his sister Mrs. Thomas Brewster Coolidge (Metropolitan Museum of Art); Seth Knowles (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College); and Judge Joseph Story (National Portrait Gallery, Washington); Amos Lawrence, who contributed $10,000 to the building of the monument (three portraits); Daniel Webster, president of the Association (approximately twenty portraits), and Mrs. Daniel Webster (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College) who is said to have been portrayed in the dress she wore to the ceremony laying the foundation stone on June 17, 1825, during which her husband gave the main address (Hedy Backlin-Landman, "A Portrait of Seth Knowles by Chester Harding," "Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin" vol. 28, No. 3, Spring 1971, p. 198). The portraits of Rebecca Warren Brown and Dr. John Ball Brown were bequeathed to the MFA by their son, Dr. Buckminster Brown, in 1914. Rebecca Brown's likeness drew praise from Oliver W. Larkin who wrote in his 1949 "Art and Life in America": "[Harding's] canvas of Mrs. John Ball Brown has a color scheme far more original than most of Stuart's; the lemon-yellow ribbons and the olive-gray dress with its ermine trimmings handsomely set off the warm flesh tones of a face which is as finely characterized as it is deftly painted." Janet Comey
The artist; to Dr. and Mrs. John Ball Brown, the sitter and her husband; to Buckminster Brown, M.D., Boston, their son; to MFA, 1914, bequest of Buckminster Brown, M.D.
Bequest of Buckminster Brown, M.D.