Beginning this week, the great colonial-era painter John Singleton Copley receives the special recognition he deserves in a spotlight corner of our Colonial to Early-Nineteenth Century Gallery, thanks in part to the generous loan from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence. Reunited for the first time in over a century, Copley’s portraits of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth), (1765), and her husband Theodore Atkinson, Jr., (1757-1758) hang side by side on the walls of our museum, along with the familiar 1767 portrait of Daniel Rogers on view nearby.
Crystal Bridges visitors will recognize Mrs. Atkinson as the young woman in sumptuous clothing holding a pet flying squirrel by a chain. Now, thanks to the RISD Museum, an earlier portrait of her husband , also painted by Copley, enables us to tell a more robust story of this famous Boston portraitist from the American colonial period.
However, for this blogpost, I want to tell a juicier story about the two young lovers reunited through the staying power of portraiture.
Theodore Atkinson, Jr. was the son of a wealthy New Hampshire landowner and nephew to the Governor of the same colony. Upon graduating from Harvard College, Theodore’s father commissioned a portrait of his son from John Singleton Copley (then only 20 years old), who depicted the young Atkinson as a distinguished landholder facing a promising and verdant future. In 1762, Theodore Jr. married his 16-year-old cousin, Frances Deering Wentworth, and commissioned Copley to capture her beauty and prestige in a portrait for their home, which was completed in 1765. They lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Theodore followed a preordained path as the secretary of the Province of New Hampshire, a member of His Majesty’s Council, and collector of customs. The couple’s future looked bright indeed. Tragedy struck in 1769, however, as Theodore Jr. fell ill and died of consumption at age 32, leaving Frances a young and lonely widow at 23.
Or was she?
Apparently, or at least as the story/legend goes, Frances had been in love for many years with another cousin, the dashing and quite handsome John Wentworth, son of New Hampshire’s governor Benning Wentworth. John’s career ambitions superseded his romantic interests, however, so when Theodore Atkinson Jr. heartily pursued Frances for her hand in marriage, she acquiesced. John Wentworth set sail for England in 1793 to attend to family business, and after five years abroad, he returned to great fanfare as the new Governor of New Hampshire. By this time, poor Theodore Jr. was in ill health. He finally died on October 28, 1769, and the events that followed proved quite notorious for years to come, as written down a century later by Harriett E.P. Spottford in her 1871 book New England Legends:
“On one day Theodore breathed his last. His burial took place on the following Wednesday; by the Governor’s order all the bells in town were tolled, flags were hung at half-mast, and minute-guns were fired from the fort and from the ships-of-war in the harbor. On Sunday the weeping widow, clad in crapes, listened in church to the funeral eulogies; on Monday her affliction was mitigated; on Tuesday all the fingers of the seamstresses of the country roundabout were flying; and on the next Sunday, in the white satins and jewels and fardingales [hooped skirts] of a bride, she walked up the aisle the wife of Governor Wentworth.”
Some facts appear to support this account, as Governor John Wentworth did order an expression of official sympathy for the death of young Theodore, including a cannon fire salute from the ship Beaver stationed in the Portsmouth harbor. Facts also show that Frances Atkinson married John Wentworth on November 11, 1769, only 13 days after Theodore’s death. They wed in the same church that had hosted her former husband’s funeral a week earlier. Rumor had it that the pair had been communicating during Theodore’s illness, Frances using a handkerchief to signal to John from a window as her husband grew weaker by the day.
Of course, one must take such accounts, including Ms. Spottford’s, with a bit of salt. Portraying Mrs. Atkinson’s brief mourning period, and its thinly veiled assertion of an inappropriate affair, reflects a common means of curtailing women’s behaviors throughout history – gossip remains a strong force in regulating social control. Marital affairs among the upper-classes were commonplace during this time, and occurred for a variety of complicated reasons. We may never know the actual circumstances behind this love triangle, but one thing is for certain: stories about the real people behind our historical paintings help to make American art come alive in special ways.
Mr. and Mrs. John Wentworth eventually fled Portsmouth to England in 1775 after Revolutionaries pointed a cannon at the front door of their home. They eventually returned to North America, settling in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where John was appointed Lieutenant Governor. There’s more to their story, but I end this tale with a reflection on Frances and Theodore’s few years together, and the role that John Singleton Copley’s talent for portraiture played in documenting their histories. Enjoy viewing the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Atkinson together again after more than a century apart. Mr. Atkinson’s portrait will be on view through the summer and beyond.
To learn another fascinating tale of historical art intrigue, follow this link to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum’s blogpost about how John Singleton Copley’s Theodore Atkinson Jr. (1757-1758) was believed to be painted by another colonial artist, John Blackburn, for nearly 200 years!