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The Terry family owned the portrait for several generations before donating it to the National Gallery of Art. Lydia Coit Terry's daughter, Mrs. Charles Collins (née Mart Hall Terry), gave it to her own daughter, Mrs. William Allen Butler (née Louise Terry Collins). The subject's great-great-grandson, Dr. Charles Terry Butler of Chappaqua, New York, donated the portrait to the NGA in 1981. (Provenance notes, NGA)
"The previous four-member mortise-and-tenon stretcher with inner keys in open slots may have been the original. The tacking margins and a small portion of the lower left corner are missing, but cusping suggests that the dimensions remain unaltered. The white or cream-colored ground layer is covered with an orange-red imprimatura that is visible through thin areas of the paint. The paint was applied fluidly without much impasto; it is noticeably thicker in the face. The skin, hair, and black dress were painted first, followed by the ruffle and bonnet, and then the gray background was abutted to the figure. The red drapery was then painted over the background and black dress. A tear in the upper left corner, small losses along the edges, and abrasion in the right sleeve are inpainted" (Torchia 18).
overall: 75.8 x 63 cm (29 13/16 x 24 13/16 in.)
framed: 101.9 x 88.9 x 7.6 cm (40 1/8 x 35 x 3 in.)
One half of a portrait pair.
"Photographs show an inscription 'Painted by / Saml. F.B. Morse.' on the old lining fabric, and an excise duty stamp with illegible numbers stenciled on the back of the original support" (Torchia 18).
Morse had spent much of 1824 traveling the Northeast in search of patrons. His stops included New York, New Jersey, and Portland, Maine. This unrewarding, itinerant lifestyle frustrated Morse-in Portland, he complained that one client had "no more taste than a cow"-so he returned home to New Haven (Staiti & Reynolds 48). There, "his spirits revived somewhat, and in a series of excellent pictures he moved toward what appears in retrospect as the pinnacle of his portrait career" (Staiti 113). The portrait pair of Eliphalet and Lydia Terry, the first of several such pairs he executed in the 1820s, was painted during a trip to Hartford early that fall. At about the same time, Morse painted a "brilliant portrait of Eli Whitney" (Staiti & Reynolds 49). He enjoyed more good fortune when he returned to New York City in November of 1824. The connections Morse made there among artists, socialites, and politicians helped him overcome formidable competition to win the city's commission of a life-sized portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette (Staiti 117).
Morse painted the portrait in Hartford, Connecticut, in the Northeastern United States.
"The artist represented his matronly subject clad in a black dress and seated in a chair covered by a piece of red drapery that she uses to warm her hands. Lydia Terry faces right, the visual complement to her husband, who faces left. A vertical ridge in the wall behind her diminishes the stark effect of the spacious backgrounds when the portraits are viewed together. The most striking aspect of the painting is the white lace ruffle and matching bonnet that frame the sitter's head; the unusually ornate quality serves to attract the viewer's attention to her ruddy countenance" (Torchia 19). Paul Staiti observes that "[i]n her gentle smile and contained pose Mrs. Terry radiates grace and contentedness that are made slightly bittersweet by the faint aura of melancholy in her puffy eyes and by the listless slump of her body" (113-14).
Long before Samuel Morse secured his fame through his work on the telegraph, he executed "some of the most compelling portraits in the history of American art" (Staiti 103). His training as a painter included a stay in London (1811-1815), where he exhibited work in the Royal Academy and studied under Benjamin West. Morse was inspired "by the idealistic content of West's pictures…the sheer number and size of his works," and by West's historical subject matter (Evans, West 162-163). Morse tried to import this historical subject matter to America with The House of Representatives (1823), "a monumental picture that he hoped would vault him and his nation into their cultural destiny…. a history painting rich in intelligence, ethics, and idealism" (Staiti 71). However, the "visually subtle and intellectually complex painting" was a failure with the public, which "preferred diversions more flamboyant and less demanding" (Staiti 72, 71). Paul Staiti explains that while the work was "the centerpiece of Morse's career as a painter, a summa of his artistic, cultural, and political philosophy, a true expression of his millennial hopes, and a key work in the history of American art, it also provides the quintessential example of Morse's failure to acquire a popular audience" (71).
Morse turned to portraiture to recover financially from the project, and in the early-to-mid 1820s traveled extensively in search of commissions. His portrait of Lydia Coit Terry and the companion piece of her husband "[b]oth technically and formally…exhibit the artist's sure command of his expressive means. The paintings are as poised and assured as their subjects. Direct and candid, devoid of pomposity, they testify to a meeting of the minds between the artist and his sitters" (Kloss 88). The unassuming portrait, as Evans notes regarding much early American portraiture, "depend[s] not on props or a symbolic background, but rather on the representation of the head alone…to present readable, moral traits in the face." A factor in this approach to moral idealization might have been the pseudo-science of physiognomy, which presumed "one could learn to identify a person's moral character from the bone structure of his face and the permanent lines left by habitual facial expressions" ("Survival" 130).
Shortly after executing the portraits of Eliphalet and Lydia Coit Terry, Morse won the coveted commission to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, the work that would mark his career's apex. Morse also served as an eloquent spokesman for his craft. He was the first president of the National Academy of Design, serving from 1826 until 1845, and in 1826 "delivered a series of four important lectures at the New York Athenaeum in which he argued for the advancement of art in American society" ("Biography" NGA). His political beliefs were far less progressive: in the 1830s he became associated with radical nativist party politics, and wrote the decade's "best-documented, best-argued, most widely read, most influential, and most ruthless nativist tract," delineating the threats Catholic immigration posed to democracy (Staiti 210). In 1836 the Native American Democratic Association picked Morse as its candidate for mayor of New York. Staiti suggests that these ideological connections damaged his chances of winning a commission to execute a mural for the Capitol Rotunda. Morse retired from painting after this disappointment, and spent the rest of his life working on the telegraph.
Evans, Dorinda. Benjamin West and His American Students. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980.
Evans, Dorinda. "Survival and Transformation: The Colonial Portrait in the Federal Era." The Portrait in Eighteenth-Century America. Ed. Ellen G. Miles. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
Kloss, William. Samuel F.B. Morse. New York: H.N. Abrams in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1988.
Larkin, Oliver W. Samuel F.B. Morse and American Democratic Art. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954.
"Lydia Coit Terry." National Gallery of Art. 2003. 9 June 2003 .
"Samuel Finley Breese Morse-Biography." National Gallery of Art. 2003. 9 June 2003 .
Staiti, Paul and Reynolds, Gary A. Samuel F.B. Morse. New York: Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, 1982.
Staiti, Paul. Samuel F.B. Morse. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Torchia, Robert Wilson. "Samuel F.B. Morse." American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Torchia, Deborah Chotner, and Ellen G. Miles. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1996.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, American, 1791-1872, Lydia Coit Terry (Mrs. Eliphalet Terry), c. 1824, oil on canvas, .758 x .63 m. (29 13/16 x 24 13/16 in.), Gift of Dr. Charles Terry Butler, 1981.46.2, NGA.