An itinerant portrait painter, William Jennys traveled throughout New England seeking commissions. In 1803, he was in Rutland, Vermont, where the prosperous attorney Cephas Smith, Jr., hired him to paint portraits of himself [1974.135] and his young wife and child. The portraits were among Jennys’s most ambitious works. Although he was known for small half-length likenesses, here he returned to a larger three-quarter-length format. These had been popular in the materialistic 1760s and 1770s because the bigger canvases allowed for the inclusion of furnishings, draperies, and other indications of wealth.
In the related portrait of Mr. Smith, the sitter poses at his writing desk, pen in hand, demonstrating that he is a successful man of affairs. Here, his wife is shown seated in a matching chair, holding an infant in her lap—either Egbert, the Smiths’ second child, or Mary, their third. The infant holds a coral and bells, an expensive yet essential item of child-rearing equipment. The sparkling silver bells amused the baby, while the coral, parents believed, guarded against disease. In the eighteenth century, teething was considered as dangerous as diphtheria. Biting on coral would ease the discomfort of teething. Coral was also believed to have talismanic powers, warding off ailments and dangers. The rattle was thus not just a toy but a device to protect children and promote their development.
This text was adapted from Carol Troyen and Janet L. Comey, Amerikakaigakodomo no sekai [Children in American art], exh. cat. (Nagoya, Japan: Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2007).
Mrs. Cephas Smith, Jr. (Mary Gove) and Child
- about 1803
- William Jennys, American, 1774–1858
- 106.04 x 80.33 cm (41 3/4 x 31 5/8 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- Lurie-Marks Gallery (Rural Arts) - 138