Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard (Alice Delancey)

Barbara Martin

This painting of a wealthy couple takes on new political relevance in relation to our First Lady. The story of this portrait for me has always been “the Grand Tour.” Copley the painter and his subjects, Ralph and Alice Izard of South Carolina, are cultured colonials reveling in the art and antiquities of Italy. Then Rachel Swarn’s American Tapestry told me that Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandparents were owned by a South Carolina rice planter named Ralph Izard, almost certainly related to our Izards. When I look at this painting now, I feel Michelle Obama—and her ancestors—standing next to me. The observation feels all the more relevant given the First Lady’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention:

“That is the story of this country. The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done. So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—play with the dog on the White House lawn.”

What would that painting look like?

Update August 31, 2016 5:13 pm

For years, I had been focusing inside the frame, thinking primarily about what Copley intended to tell us about this couple, that they were people with an appreciation of culture—the art and architecture of antiquity. The connection with Michelle Obama’s ancestors made vivid what isn’t included in the portrait, the degree to which American wealth rested on slavery, something I knew but wasn’t in the forefront of my mind in connection with this painting. A lesson in thinking about what’s there and what isn’t there. A reminder to always look outside the frame.

Barbara Martin is the Barbara and Theodore Alfond Curator of Education.