Maria De Wolf (Mrs. Robert Rogers)

about 1805
Cephas Thompson (American, 1775–1856)


Dimensions

68.58 x 55.88 cm (27 x 22 in.)

Accession Number

1980.439

Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

Not On View

Collections

Americas

Classifications

Paintings

Cephas Thompson was a prolific, self-taught painter from Middleborough, Massachusetts, who earned his living as an itinerant artist. In the early nineteenth century, he traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, visiting numerous ports. In each city, Thompson would take up residence for several months, place a notice in the local newspaper to advertise his services, and complete many portrait commissions during his stay. His itinerary included Charleston, South Carolina (1800, 1804, 1819, 1822); Baltimore, Maryland (1804); Alexandria (1807–9), Richmond (1809–10), and Norfolk, Virginia (1810–12); New Orleans, Louisiana (1816); and Savannah, Georgia (1818).[1]
Closer to home, Thompson worked in Bristol, Rhode Island, from 1805 to 1807, and again in 1816 and 1822. Bristol was a flourishing port, well connected to the south through the triangle trade of molasses/sugar, rum, and slaves. On June 20, 1807, Thompson placed the following advertisement in the Mount Hope Eagle, published in Bristol:
[Block quote]
PORTRAIT PAINTING
C. THOMPSON
Informs the inhabitants of Bristol, that he is soon to leave the place. Those who have contemplated employing him in the line of his profession, are invited to call immediately at his Room, over the Mount-Hope Insurance Office. [2]
[/Block quote]

Thompson completed ninety-three portraits during his first sojourn in Bristol. Eighteen of these were of members of the DeWolf family, including this likeness of Maria DeWolf. The linear quality of Maria’s portrait, a characteristic common in the work of many self-taught artists, may reflect his reliance on prints for his early drawing technique. The style suggests that she was painted early in his stay, probably in 1805. Thompson demonstrated his ability to capture a likeness with his depiction of Maria’s fetching facial features and forthright gaze, and he took obvious delight in rendering the texture of her curly hair. He painted her in a fashionable empire-style white dress and included such details as the ties gathering the sleeves at her shoulders. His representation of her anatomy is much less convincing, however, with little definition to her torso and arms, and his representation of the architectural elements of the window opening reveals his disinterest in linear perspective.

Maria DeWolf was born in 1795, and thus was about ten years old when she sat for her portrait. Thompson shows her as a serious young girl, with her hand on an open book. Maria was the daughter of William and Charlotte Finney DeWolf. William DeWolf and his brothers James (later a United States Senator), John, and Charles were merchants, operating wharves, counting houses, banks, a rum distillery, and the Mount-Hope Insurance Company, which insured their ships. They were the largest slave traders in all of North America, mounting more than eighty transatlantic voyages, most of which carried African slaves to Cuba where the family also owned sugar cane and tobacco plantations. [3]Thompson’s “Memorandum of Portraits” (Boston Athenaeum), a list he kept of his sitters, indicates that he painted portraits of both William and Charlotte DeWolf and their five children, although only those of two children in addition to Maria’s—Charlotte and William (both Milwaukee Art Museum)—have been located. Those two canvases display a more accomplished grasp of anatomy and modeling and have similar backgrounds, and are thought to have been painted somewhat later than Maria’s.

Maria married Robert Rogers (1792–1870), a native of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1814. Soon after his marriage, Rogers formed a business connection with his father-in-law that lasted until William DeWolf’s death in 1829. Rogers was also a prosperous merchant, president of the Bristol’s Eagle Bank, and by the end of his life the wealthiest citizen of Bristol, leaving an estate of over $1,300,000. [4] He was also an avid reader and accumulated a library of several thousand volumes. In keeping with his interests, Maria DeWolf Rogers built the Rogers Free Library in Bristol in 1877, seven years after her husband’s death, and named it after him. She gave the library 4,000 volumes from her husband’s collection and 1,200 new volumes that she purchased with her sister Miss Charlotte DeWolf. She gave the remainder of her husband’s books to the Redwood Library in Newport. Maria DeWolf Rogers died in 1890.

The MFA’s portrait of Maria descended in the family to Miss Alicia Hopton Middleton (1849–1938), Maria’s grand-niece. It was later owned by legendary dealers in Americana Avis and Rockwell Gardiner, and then by folk-art collectors Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, who gave it to the Museum in 1980. The Rogers Free Library owns a portrait of Maria DeWolf Rogers painted by an unknown artist, probably at the time of her marriage in 1814. [5]

Notes
1. See Deborah L. Sisum, “‘A Most Favorable and Striking Resemblance’: The Virginia Portraits of Cephas Thompson (1775–1856),”Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 23, no. 1 (Summer 1997): 1–101.
2. Susan Parsons, “Recent Accessions to the Society’s Museum Collections: Portraits of Captain and Mrs. Isaac Manchester,”Old-Time New England 40, no. 2 (October–December 1964), 52.
3. Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, Slavery and Justice, report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice (Providence, R.I.: Brown University, 2006), p. 10, accessed August, 15, 2011, http://www.brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice/documents/SlaveryAndJustice.pdf.
4. Charles O. F. Thompson, Sketches of Old Bristol (Providence, R.I.: Roger Williams Press, 1942), 216ff.
5. I am grateful to Reinhard Battcher III, Joan Prescott, and Kristin Calouro of the Rogers Free Library for providing information on Maria DeWolf Rogers.

Janet L. Comey

Provenance

About 1805, William (1762-1829) and Charlotte Finney De Wolf (1764-1829), parents of the sitter, Bristol, R.I.; 1829, by descent to the sitter, Maria De Wolf Rogers (1795-1890), Bristol, R. I. By 1932, descended in the family to the grand-niece of the sitter, Miss Alicia Hopton Middleton (1849-1938), Bristol, R.I. Avis and Rockwell Gardiner; 1963, sold by Avis and Rockwell Gardiner to Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch; 1980, gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch to the MFA. (Accession Date: November 12, 1980)

Credit Line

Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch