The celebrated portraits of the Levy-Franks family, attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck (1695-1746) and dating from the period of the 1720s to 1735, offer a rare glimpse into the lives of a noteworthy Jewish family in Colonial America. The patriarch of the family, Moses Raphael Levy (1665-1728) was a prosperous German-born real estate investor who came to New York from London about 1695. His first wife was Richa Asher (?-1716), whom he married in London in 1695. Moses Levy's second wife was Grace Mears Levy (1694-1740), who had been born to English parents in Jamaica. In 1718, the couple married in London.
Strained relations between his second wife and his eldest daughter from his first marriage, Bilhah Abigail Levy (1696-1756), are indicated in a series of letters from this period. It is this series of letters written between Bilhah Abigail Levy and her eldest son Naphtali Franks (1715-1796) that provide one of the most crucial historical records of the Franks family and the Jewish community of the 18th century in New York and London. Through these letters, we know of the secret marriage of Phila Franks (1722-1811), who shocked her family by marrying outside of the Jewish community in 1742. Phila's husband, Oliver De Lancey (1718-1785), came from the prominent New York family after whom Delancey Street is named. While other members of the family secretly communicated with Phila following her marriage to De Lancey, Bilhah Abigail Levy never reconciled with her daughter. As did other Loyalist families, Phila moved to London with her family following the Revolution.
The identification of the sitters in the portraits the children of Bilhah Abigail Levy and Jacob Franks presents several challenges. Many of these portraits have been misidentified, although recent scholarship has shed new light on the identification of the sitters. Current scholarship of the Levy-Franks family suggests that the portrait of Phila Franks may actually be Phila's sister Richa, whose birthdate is unknown (fig. 1).
The present lot, descending in a family related to the Levy-Franks family through Grace Mears Levy, is possibly a copy of the portrait that has been traditionally identified as Phila Franks (fig. 1). In spite of the 19th century plaque which identifies the sitter as Bilhah Abigail Levy (Lot 722, fig. 1), several stylistic features seen here suggest that this portrait was painted in the mid-18th century. The oval outline painted around the subject is a convention seen in a portrait attributed to John Wallaston (active 1733-1775) of Rachel Levy Seixas (1733-1775), the half-sister of Bilhah Abigail Levy Franks (fig. 2). (Richard Brilliant Facing the New World Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America (New York, 1997) p. 35-36, fig. 11 and plate 3). Dating to 1750, the portrait of Phila's half sister shows a hairstyle and dress that is more appropriate to that period. By contrast, the present example shares stylistic features with the portrait of dating to the 1735 period, most notably and the facial features of the subject and in the neckline of the dress. These features suggest the possibility that this is a portrait of Phila Franks, painted circa 1750, when Phila would have been in her twenties or thirties. The facial features seen here are certainly those of a younger woman. It is unlikely that this is a portrait of her mother Bilhah as indicated by the plaque, who would have been 54 years old in 1750 (see lot 722, fig. 1). Desending in the same family since the time that it was painted, this portrait could have easily misidentified in the 19th century. Given the similarities in hairstyle, dress and facial features between Bihlah and Phila seen in the portraits attributed to Duyckinck, this is a likely explanation to this misidentification. This portrait is an excellent example of the challenges of identification of 18th century portraiture, and leaves open the possibility for further research within this important family.