Sat for Mr. Rammage near two hours to-day, who was drawing a miniature picture of me for Mrs. Washington
George Washington, Personal Diary, 3 October 1789
George Washington, the heroof the American Revolution and America's David against George III as Goliath, was the most internationally famous American of his day. Painted by the most renowned artists of his time, Washington's image was disseminated and recognized throughout the western world. He was presented in period prints and literature not only in the role of a triumphant Caesar whose virtue soared on par with the Ancients, but as a wise statesman and the childless father of an entire nation. Lighthorse Harry Lee's epitaph, "First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen" was in no way a florid eulogy to the departed First Hero; it was a factual assessment reflecting what Washington meant to the nation even before his death.
On 3 October 1789, the newly United States' First President sat before John Ramage, the most fashionable and accomplished portrait miniaturist in New York City, for his first portrait since his inauguration on 30 April. The two men could not have been more different. Washington, born in Virginia to a wealthy, landowning family, was thrust into the national spotlight in 1755 following his bravery during the French and Indian War as Major-General Braddock's aide in the Battle of the Monongahela. In January 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge, the young widow of Daniel Parke Custis; the union would last until Washington's own death forty years later. Daniel Parke Custis left his widow among the wealthiest women in Virginia; George Washington left Martha the most loved widow in the nation. By the time Washington became famous for his military exploits, John Ramage was only seven years old in Ireland. With little record otherwise remaining of his early life, Ramage did arrive in America to seek his fortune as a portrait miniaturist, was married three times (once bigamously), and fought for the Loyalist cause during the American Revolution. Whereas Washington died at his family plantation, Mount Vernon, with his wife at his bedside, Ramage died shortly thereafter in a stranger's home in Canada, a fugitive from New York's debtor laws where his wife and children remained. Perhaps the only circumstances the two men shared were that they were both Free Masons and they were both regarded as the best in their lifetimes at what they did.
The most important of all his commissions, Ramage made two distinct versions of this portrait of President Washington. The first version, painted from life and showing its subject facing to his right, was intended by Washington as a gift to Martha and is illustrated here. The second version shows the General facing forward in a comparatively less formal presentation; its frame was made by Ramage and is also in a simpler format. This second version is in the collection of the Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont and is illustrated Figure 1. A copy of this second forward facing pose is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is illustrated Figure 2. All three show Washington in his more familiar uniform of the Continental Army, and as such implies that Ramage prepared this aspect of the portrait prior to the sitting. While Washington was commonly referred to in newspapers and within his family's correspondence before his inauguration as 'the General', among other names, Washington rarely wore his uniform after he resigned his commission, preferring civilian dress.
THE PRESIDENT AND MRS. WASHINGTON
At the time Ramage painted Washington, the capital of the United States was New York City. Convinced of America's future as a formidable and powerful nation, Washington dubbed the governing region of his new capital "The Empire State," and New York he christened its Empire City. In this atmosphere of exuberant national optimism and cosmopolitan elegance, George and Martha Washington left their beloved Virginia and defined by example the meaning of a President.
Elected President in early April 1789, Washington arrived in New York from Mount Vernon on 23 April and was sworn in on the veranda of Federal Hall one week later (Figure 3). The uncertainty with which Washington greeted his election was clear in both his letters at the time as well as his diary, in which he wrote,
Thursday, 16 April
About ten o'clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity, and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York in company with Mr. Thomson and Col. Humphreys, with the best disposition to render service to my country in obedience to its calls, but with less hope of answering its expectations.1
Remaining at Mount Vernon, Martha Washington prepared their household for her own departure to New York City. She alluded to some of the personal toll Washington's election meant in a letter to her nephew, John Dandridge,
Mount Vernon, April 20th 1789
I am truly sorry to tell that the General is gone to New York when, or wheather [sic] he will ever come home again god only knows, -I think it was much too late for him to go in to publick life again, but it was not to be avoided, our family will be deranged as I must soon follow him 2
The celebrations attending Washington's arrival to New York City are well documented. The official program dictated the reception to begin on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor, and for Washington to travel by barge with thirteen white-uniformed oarsmen to lower Manhattan, heralded by gun salutes as he passed specific points in the harbor. On the President's arrival in Manhattan, the bells of area churches rang continuously for one half hour, and that night the citizens of New York City illuminated the windows of their homes in celebration. The Daily Advertiser of 24 April 1789 described the scene in New York Harbor as Washington crossed it,
No language can paint the beautiful display made on his excellency's approach to the city. The shores were crowded with a vast concourse of citizens, waiting with the exulting anxiety his arrival His excellency's barge was accompanied by the barge of the Hon. Gen. Knox, and a great number of vessels and boats from Jersey and New-York, in his train.-As he passed the [Spanish packet] Galviston, he received a salute of thirteen guns, and was welcomed by an equal number from the battery 3
From a shop window above the wharf decorated for the occasion, Eliza Morton (later Mrs. Josiah Quincy) witnessed Washington's landing and later recalled,
Carpets were spread to the carriage prepared for him; but he preferred walking through the crowded streets, and was attended by Governor Clinton and many other officers and gentlemen. He frequently bowed to the multitude, and took off his hat to the ladies at the windows, who waved their handkerchiefs, and threw flowers before him, and shed tears of joy and congratulation. The whole city was one scene of triumphant rejoicing. His name, in every form of decoration, appeared on the fronts of the houses; and the streets which he passed through to the Governor's mansion were ornamented with flags, silk banners of various colors, wreaths of flowers, and branches of evergreen. Never did anyone enjoy such a triumph as Washington, who indeed read his history in a nation's eyes4
Martha Washington's arrival in New York City in late May 1789 was no less formal, which she recounted in a letter to her niece, Fanny Bassett Washington,
New York, June 8, 1789
I was met on wednesday morning by the President, Mr. Morris and Colo. H [Colonel David Humphreys] at Elizabethtown point with the fine Barge you have seen so much said of in the papers with the same oars men that carried the P. to New York - dear little Washington [George Washington Parke Custis] seemed to be lost in a mase [sic] at the great parade that was made for us all the way we come - The Governor of the state [George Clinton] meet me as soon as we landed, and led me up to the House, the paper will tell you how I was complimented on my landing - I thank god the Prdt [sic] is very well, and the Gentlemen with him are all very well, - the House he is in is a very good one and is handsomely furnished all new for the General - 5
The house provided for the Washingtons was located at No. 3 Cherry Street (Figure 4), close to the East River and the present-day Brooklyn Bridge, near what was then St. George's Square. No. 3 Cherry Street was built in 1770 by merchant Walter Franklin and bequeathed to Samuel Osgood. By 1789, Osgood had allowed its use as a residence for Presidents of Congress. Directed to re-fit the home for the President of the United States, Osgood passed the task to his wife, and the interiors on Washington's arrival were described in a letter to a Franklin cousin in Philadelphia.
Previous to [Washington's] coming, Uncle Walter's house in Cherry Street was taken for him, and every room furnished in the most elegant manner, Aunt Osgood and Lady Kitty Duer had the whole management of it. I went the morning before the General's arrival to look at it-the best of furniture in every room-and the greatest quantity of plate and china that I ever saw before, the whole of the first and second story is papered and the floors covered with the richest kind of Turkey and Wilton Carpets-the house really did honour to my Aunt and Lady Kitty, they spared no pains or expense in it The evening after his Excellency's arrival a general illumination took place, except among friends and those styled Anti-Federalists, the latter's windows suffered some thou may imagine-as soon as the General is sworn in, a grand exhibition of fireworks is to be displayed, which is to be expected will be to-morrow6
Described as, "square, five windows wide, and three stories high, neither very spacious nor conveniently situated,"7 the contents of No. 3 Cherry Street represented the finest furnishings New York City's craftsmen had to offer and was paid for by Congress. The house was demolished in 1856.
The President and Mrs. Washington attempted to support requests for their patronage and immediately instituted several social hallmarks that set the tone for the administration. The President's weekly formal gatherings, to which only men were invited, were answered by Mrs. Washington, who, within two days of her arrival in New York City, began her Friday evening receptions. Called "drawing rooms," Mrs. Washington's Friday evenings were an open house to important politicians and socially prominent ladies and gentlemen of the day. Abigail Adams described the drawing rooms she variously attended between August 1789 and July 1790,
The form of Reception is this, the servants announce & Col. Humphries or Mr. Lear, receives every Lady at the door, & Hands her up to Mrs. Washington to whom she makes a most Respectfull courtsey and then is seated without noticeing any of the rest of the company [sic]. The Pressident [sic] then comes up and speaks to the Lady, which he does with a grace dignity & ease, that leaves Royal George far behind him. The company are entertaind with Ice creems & Lemonade [sic], and retire at their pleasure performing the same ceremony when the quit the Room.8
On the Friday evening before his Saturday sitting for Ramage, Washington noted, " The Visitors to Mrs. Washington this evening were not numerous."9
Several days after sitting for his portrait with Ramage, Washington's note, "Excersized in a Carriage with Mrs. Washington in the forenoon-,"shows a moment between the couple not absorbed by duty and reveals a glimpse of their partnership in an era of formality between spouses. Nonetheless, Martha Washington's obligations, formal appearances and solicitations made to her as the wife of the President pulled her from her family and distracted her from household matters. This strain was aggravated by criticism the Washingtons received in some areas of the Anti-Federalist press. By the end of October 1789, with her husband gone on his first tour of New England as President, Martha's weary isolation is apparent in her letter to Fanny Bassett Washington.
New York, 23 October 1789
Mrs. Sims will give you a better account of the fashons [sic] than I can - I live a very dull life hear [sic] and know nothing that passes in the town - I never goe to the publick place [sic] - indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from - and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal -
The President set out this day week on a tour to the eastward10
In this context, Washington's "...miniature Picture of me for Mrs. Washington-"11 was the most personal gift possible to the woman who supported his lifetime of service and duty to the public.
While Washington keenly recognized the importance of being the first President in a world that had never known such an entity, his elevated status did not detract from his personal priorities in presenting such a memento to his wife. The image of Washington portrayed in this gift to his wife is not a political construct conveying the sitter's authority or power. Rather, it is a realistic reminder of the man and soldier Martha Washington had known for three decades, whose every departure from the comforts of home might have been his last.
By 1789, George and Martha Washington had both sat for their portrait numerous times. At least six different artists had already portrayed Washington on canvas, in marble and in miniature, whether as the hero of the French and Indian War and Virginia's frontier or the leader of the Continental Army (Figure 6). As Martha Custis, Martha Washington and her children by Daniel Parke Custis sat for John Wollaston. After her marriage to Washington, Martha, Jacky and Patsy Custis also sat for Charles Willson Peale, to name only a few (Figure7). By the end of Washington's presidency in 1797, both George and Martha Washington had sat for over a dozen artists.
Over fifty portraits from life were painted of Washington between 1755 and 1798, of which fewer than a dozen are in miniature. Nonetheless, from both the pre-Presidential and Presidential groups of portraits, countless replica paintings, engravings and prints were made, particularly during the period of epic national mourning following Washington's death in 1799. The popularity of Washington's likeness and the thriving business his portraits supported were such that well after Washington's demise, John Neal was noted as saying in 1868 in regard to Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum Portrait (Figure 8), the model for the one dollar bill,
if Washington should return to life and stand side by side with Stuart's portrait and not resemble it, he would be rejected as an impostor.12
With so many portraits executed either for official purposes, or as an expression of gratitude to Washington, few such as the Ramage portrait miniature existed in a private role between George and Martha Washington. The Ramage portrait of Washington serves as a reminder that where Washington's loathing of sitting for his state portrait is well documented, this was not the case where his family was concerned.13
HISTORY OF OWNERSHIPb
Washington to Mrs. Washington to Betty Lewis Carter to Otwayana Carter Owen to Jennie Woodville Latham Stabler to Lucy Wharton Drexel, 1907
The history of ownership of Ramage's Washington portrait miniature follows the descendants of two families for almost two hundred years. Owned for over a century after Martha Washington by descendants of her husband's sister Betty Washington Lewis, the miniature was purchased privately by Philadelphia philanthropist and collector, Lucy Wharton Drexel, in 1907 and remained in her family until 1988. According to the 1927 catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the history of ownership was engraved onto the back of the frame by Albert Rosenthal in Philadelphia in 1895; on its purchase by Lucy Wharton Drexel in 1907, the frame was subsequently engraved again.
Unseen by the public from its creation in 1789, the existence of the miniature was not commonly known outside the Washington and Ramage Families until the limited private printing of Washington's personal diary in 1858.14 The version of the Washington Ramage miniature presently in the collection of The Robert Hull Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont was exhibited to a large public audience in New York City in 1889 to celebrate centennial of Washington's inauguration. However, the revelation and illustration of the miniature painted by Ramage that Washington specifically referred to as the a gift for his wife was not published until 1894 in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, almost a full hundred years after the miniature's creation. This last periodical provided the first complete identification and discussion of the miniature by one of its then owners, Harry Snowden Stabler (1865-1929), who provided its history of ownership to that point. While some misinformation was also put forth in this publication, Stabler's article nonetheless identified and located the Ramage miniature, whose unknown survival and whereabouts had increasingly become a puzzle to American Art historians and Washington scholars.
Following its presentation to Martha Washington, the Ramage portrait miniature does not appear on Widow Washington's probate inventory of 1802. This absence implies that the miniature was probably a gift from Martha Washington during her life to her niece Betty Lewis Carter, the next owner, as has been variously surmised.15 Martha Washington's will directed that all paintings and portraits at Mount Vernon, with the exception of a few specific bequests that did not include the Ramage portrait miniature, be left to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. In no subsequent transaction or property listing of the legatees is any allusion made to the Ramage portrait miniature, nor is any made in a later discussion of Custis' Washington Family paintings.16
Martha Washington's correspondence following her husband's death in 1799, however, shows that she received many requests from family, friends and bereaved countrymen for some memento of the fallen hero or of herself.
Boston, January 11, 1800
The Grand Lodge of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have deeply participated in the general grief of their Fellow Citizens, on the melancholy occasion of the death of their beloved Washington. As Americans, they have lamented the loss of the Chief, who had led their armies to victory, and their country to glory; but as masons, they have wept the dissolution of that endearing relation, by which they were enabled to call him their friend and their brother The object of this address is, not to interrupt the sacred offices of grief like yours. But, The Grand Lodge have subjoined an order that a golden Urn be prepared as a deposit for a lock of hair, an invaluable relique of the Hero and the Patriot whom our wishes would immortalize, and t(hat) it be preserved with the jewell and r(eliques) of society Should this favor be granted, Madam, it will be cherished as the most precious jewell in the cabinet of the Lodge, as the memory of his virtues will be forever be, in the hearts of its members We have the honour to be with the highest respect
Your most obedient Servants
Even those without the connection to Washington that Warren, Revere and Bartlett would have had as Patriots, veterans and Masons, felt moved to write and entreaty Washington's widow,
Providence, Feby 14th 1800
Conscious of the presumption this address implies, we offer it with trembling diffidence, and while we sympathize we respect your sorrows! Pardon however this intrusion on them, and suffer us to name the motives for it - Our Fathers fought with Washington! They taught our infant lispings to repeat His name and since have shewed to us the vast volume of His worth. He defended our Mothers from the Tomahawk of Savage barbarity and warded from their Breasts the polished (?) of more refined cruelty. Gratitude struggles for utterance, but the attempt is vain and to the feeling heart we leave it to conceive it. Such an one we are now addressing, and while the memory of Washington shall ever remain in our hearts... we wish also for some external remembrance of the Man "first in War, first in Peace and first in the hearts of his Country". Could we Madam receive from you a lock, (however small) of his invaluable hair, while life remained we would wear it as a charm to deter us from ill and while gazing on it, think on the bright perfections of its former owner, till by degrees we engrafted them in our own Nature's.
We remain Madam
Mary B. Howell
P.S. Would it not be () in presumption we would also (in behalf of a society of Females) request a lock of your hair. altho we have not the happiness of being personally acquainted with you Madam, yet the chosen Friend of Washington, will ever be dear to our Hearts.18
To each of these requests, Martha Washington responded either personally or through her husband's former secretary, Tobias Lear. By the end of January 1800, Lear had responded to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts stating that the requested lock of hair was enclosed. To the Society of Females, Martha Washington had a response sent from Mount Vernon to each lady; one of these letters, date 12 March 1800 and accompanied by a lock of hair said to be Washington's, is presently in the collection of Rhode Island Historical Society.19
Hair requests and entreaties of personal mementos also came from friends of George and Martha Washington as a symbol of mourning and remembrance. In these instances, Mrs. Washington also responded with generosity. As Martha wrote to her friend and Revolutionary War veteran Lloyd Nicholas Rogers of Baltimore,
Mount Vernon, 10 September 1801
I have received your polite letter of the 10th ult. and it gives me pleasure to comply with your request. The only miniature I have of myself was painted by Mr. Robison in 93, Mr. Peter will carry it to the city and endeavour to procure an early opportunity of sending it to you in Baltimore. The lock of hair you requested I enclose in this letter, mine is with the picture.
The regard I have ever felt for you and Mrs. Rogers added to the esteem my Beloved and lamented Friend, allways expressed for you, renders this opportunity of gratifying your wishes peculiarly pleasing 20
Despite the intention of her letter, Martha Washington's portrait miniature by Archibald Robertson ultimately became the property of George Washington Parke Custis per her will. While the exact quantity of letters and requests for hair and memento mori sent to and from Mount Vernon following Washington's death is unknown, the amount of correspondence was suggested in a letter from Henry ("Lighthorse Harry") Lee to Martha Washington. In April 1800, Lee wrote to inform Martha that in consideration of the expense to her of postage, a bill was introduced and passed unanimously by Congress allowing her the right of franking.
While no correspondence between Martha Washington and Betty Carter survives, Carter and her husband were legatees in both George and Martha Washington's will, thus supporting the probability of a direct personal gift from Martha Washington to her niece at an undetermined time.
The inventory of the property contained at Mount Vernon for 1800 may suggest what Widow Washington's does not: that the gift happened between George and Martha's deaths in 1799 and 1802. Among the numerous portraits, paintings, prints and objects celebrating the General's extraordinary career and circle of patriots, most of which are valued modestly under $50, several descriptions stand out for their recognizability and high appraisal value. In the 1800 Appraiser's Inventory, the New Room [Banquet Hall], which contains many of the most expensive objects in the house, is listed, "1 do [Gilt Frame] small Likeness of Genl Wn $100."21 While this evaluation is not the highest and its framing description is not exact, by comparison few other objects at Mount Vernon match this value with the exception of a second "small likeness" of Washington also appraised at $100 in the Front Parlor. Other portraits of George and Martha Washington were also listed in the Front Parlor, including portraits of the Washington's grandchildren and the famous John Wollaston double-portrait of Martha's children, Jacky and Patsy Custis, valued at $50.22 In Washington's Study, the now missing mate to lot XXX (see separate catalogue, sale 9592) appears and is described as, "1 Gold Box presented to George Washington by City of New York." Washington's Freedom Box is also one of the comparatively few items valued at $100.23
Betty Washington Lewis Carter (1765-1830), the second owner of the portrait miniature, was the only surviving daughter of Colonel Fielding Lewis (1725-1781) and his wife Betty Washington (1733-1797), the only surviving sister of the President. Upon Fielding Lewis' death, Widow Lewis went to live with her recently married daughter, Mrs. Carter, at Western View, the Carter property in Stevensburg, Culpeper County, Virginia. Betty Lewis had married Charles Carter (1765-1829) on 7 May 1781, and together they had fifteen children. Like George Washington's other nieces, nephews and grandchildren, Betty Carter was the beneficiary of 1/23 of Washington's residual estate and he deeded to her husband the title to his Fredericksburg property that Carter had sought during Washington's lifetime.
Among Charles and Betty Carter's fifteen children, eight of whom died before their adulthood, Otway Anna was her youngest daughter. At the time of Betty Carter's death, Otway Anna Carter was not yet married and this circumstance warranted particular provisions. Accordingly, Betty Carter's will, written July 1829 and probated August 1830, while not accompanied by a probate inventory, nonetheless provided especially generously for Otway Anna Carter.
4thly, It is my desire, and in consideration of the unprotected situation in which I leave my daughter Otway anna Carter, that she
shallreceive, and I do hereby bequeath to her, all my household goods of whatever nature or kind they maybe, that I die possessed of, to her and her heirs forever, together with all sums of money, either due me, or be coming due to me, and all claim or claims I may have, or may hereafter become entitled to in any way whatsoever, to my said daughter Otway anna Carter for ever -24
Born in Audley, Virginia, in 1805, Otway Anna Carter was married on 26 July 1832 in Lynchburg, to Dr. William Owen, and moved with him to Kentucky where she later died childless. Like Martha Washington before her, though, Otway Anna gave the portrait miniature to a niece on her husband's side of the family, Virginia Latham. According to family tradition, Jennie Latham was considered by William and Otway Anna Owen to be the daughter they did not in fact have.
The portrait miniature next appears in February 1894 in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in an article by Harry Snowden Stabler, "Two Unpublished Portraits of Washington." Stabler identified the miniature as his property and that of his brothers, Owen and Robinson, and stated that their mother, Jennie Woodville Latham Stabler, had been given the miniature as a child by Otwayana Carter Owen. The publication confirmed the continued existence and whereabouts of the miniature, which Washington portrait scholars had known about as early as 1858, and it also alluded to an aspect of its condition that remains today. As early as 1894, Washington's cypher was broken and at angles on its plaited hair base as it is today. 25
The circumstances under which Lucy Wharton Drexel (1841-1912) was able to purchase the Ramage Washington miniature remain unknown. According to correspondence in the collection of the Robert Hull Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont, it was a nephew of H.S. Stabler and grandson of Jennie Stabler who sold the miniature to Lucy Wharton Drexel in 1907.26 Drexel, a noted philanthropist whose generosity formed the cornerstones of several collections at the Franklin Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Lenox Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died in 1912 leaving her collection of portrait miniatures to her grand-daughter, Sarah Penrose Van Pelt. Upon Mrs. Van Pelt's death, the Drexel Portrait Miniature Collection was left to a grand-daughter.
The connections between Washington and Ramage extended beyond their respective reputations. The inauguration of 1789, set in New York City, provided several opportunities for both George and Martha Washington to learn of the talented artist. Both George Clinton, the Governor of New York, and James Duane, the Mayor of New York City, each of whom attended Washington throughout the inauguration and were guests at No.3 Cherry Street thereafter, were painted by Ramage. James Duane owned the house on William Street that Ramage rented from 1784 to the time of Washington's sitting. The Chancellor of the State of New York, Robert R. Livingston, who administered the Oath of Office to Washington, was the Grand Master of St. John's Masonic Lodge No. 2; John Ramage was a member of St. John's Masonic Lodge No. 1. Ramage portrayed in miniature several of the doyennes of New York City who paid their respects to Mrs. Washington on her arrival, and he painted their husbands as well.
John Ramage was born in Dublin c. 1748, although no records survive of his early life nor does any documentation appear to survive as to where or whether he worked as a miniaturist or goldsmith in his native Ireland. His checkered personal career and political loyalties, however, resulted in several moves across and along the Atlantic seaboard.
While scant information exists as to Ramage's artistic training in Ireland, ample information exists on Ramage following his departure for the New World. By 1772, Ramage married Elizabeth Kiddell, the daughter of a London merchant, and moved to Nova Scotia. Settling in Halifax, Ramage allegedly abandoned his wife and children, and by 1775 had settled in Boston where he established himself as a miniaturist and goldsmith. On the eve of Revolution in 1776, Ramage bigamously married Maria Victoria Ball of Boston, a union that lasted approximately one week,27 as Ramage had enlisted and was sent to Halifax with the Royal Irish Volunteers, a group committed to fighting colonial independence. On reaching Halifax, he married a Mrs. Taylor, who, according to Ramage biographer John Hill Morgan, may in fact have been his first wife, the former Elizabeth Kiddell.28 By 1777 John and Elizabeth Ramage relocated again to British-occupied New York City, where they remained until Elizabeth's death in 1784. Ramage married Catherine Collins, the daughter of New Yorker John Collins, in 1787.
With his arrival in New York City in 1777, John Ramage soon became the leading portrait miniaturist among both Loyalists and Patriots, despite his continued allegiance to the crown. On 2 February 1780, he was commissioned as Lieutenant in Company 7, City Militia. On 18 October and 15 November of the same year, he advertised in the Royal Gazette,
J. Ramage, Miniature Painter, Chapel Street, No 17, begs leave to acquaint his friends he has received by the last vessels from England, a large assortment of Ivory Christals and Cases, with every other thing necessary in his branch of business.29
By 1787, Ramage had painted the handsome and successful John Pintard, Secretary of the New York Manufacturing Society, and his wife Elizabeth Brasher Pintard, now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society. He painted Van Cortlandts, Rutgers, Ludlows, Gerrys, Bleeker, McCombs, Van Rensselaers, Gouverneur Morris and John Quincy Adams, to name a few. His success seemed boundless by the time of his commission to paint his most important sitter of all, George Washington.
Cutting one of the more colorful figures in late 18th century New York City, Ramage has been described as a fast-living dandy whose marital mishaps were part of a larger pattern of irresponsibility. In 1834, William Dunlap remembered dressed as follows:
...scarlet coat with mother-of-pearl buttons, a white silk waistcoat embroidered with colored flowers, black satin breeches with paste knee buckles, white silk stockings, large silver buckles and leaving the curls at the ears displayed, a gold-headed cane and a gold snuffbox30
Yet a 1790 letter from Ramage to his wife, Catherine, who was visiting in Newtown, suggests a different personality in its affectionate and concerned references to his wife, his mother in law, who lived with John and Catherine Ramage, and their children.
My Dearest Love, I have been much gratified in seeing your Letter to your Mother in finding you are well You are Much Missed by your Mother & me, hope to have the happyness of seeing you-to Morrow [sic], why dont you Let me know what things you want, as I Cannot find out by conjecture My little Boy I hope to find better on tomorrow Mother & Children all well and Delivers their Love to You Mrs Riker & Jane and accept of the same from you truly affectionate
By 1794, however, Ramage was debt-ridden and only escaped prison by leaving New York for Canada. In April of that same year, New York City newspapers advertised a sheriff's sale of Ramage's household and painting tools as a means of satisfying his creditors. Whether or not the sale ever took place is unclear. The sale was advertised more than once, Ramage never returned, suggesting his creditors were not repaid, and his painting tools and work desk survived in his family until this century when they were given to the New-York Historical Society (Figure 9). At this time, Ramage wrote to Ephraim Hart,
The things of mine which you have as a deposit, I entreat you may not dispose of for the present, as you may be assured I shall redeem them with every farthing of what I promised for the loan of the hundred dollars I have been taken in by endorsing of Notes but I shall recover soon and shall be happy in acknowledging my obligation32
In contrast to what has been written about the artist, it was not an excessive lifestyle that financially ruined John Ramage, but securing the note of a friend named Livingston, who then defaulted on his debt. According to New York's laws at the time, not only was Ramage then entirely liable to Livingston's creditors, but he could have been arrested and placed in debtor's prison anywhere within New York State for a debt in New York City. Ramage's letters to his wife and family from the period of his flight to Canada until his death in 1802 reveal a husband and father who was neither profligate nor insensitive to the plight in which his family lived. Within one month of his departure, Ramage had written twice to his wife, Catherine, first begging her to save what she might from the sale of his belongings, and second to tell her of his confrontation of Livingston in Red Hook, New York, en route to Montreal,
[Livingston] could not pay me then I Proposed to him to give me a Note at thirty Days but I could not get that from him he is a great Rascal there for I shall send a power to Wortman to prosecute him on his arrival which will be Next week33
While Ramage was never successful through any of his representatives, Wortman, Vernon and Dillon, in prosecuting Livingston, recovering his money or restoring his name, his letters to his wife and what correspondence to Ramage survives demonstrates that some effort was made to this end. He wrote soon again to Catherine,
...I have sent the inclosed Livingstons account which you will give to Mr. Wortmen to recover for you. I shall write from Montreal the moment I arrive there Let me know Everything that occurs Since my Departure Make Jack write me and may Every guardian Angel Protect you all in the Sincear Prayer of my Dearest Love your Most affectionate and Loving Husband [sic]34
In addition to his attempts to restore himself, Ramage also wrote to the father of his deceased wife, Elizabeth, in London asking for financial assistance. Henry Liddell responded in August 1794,
A few days before I received your letter of the 17th of April, I received a letter of the same date from a lady in New York giving me an account of your & family's unhappy situation, an event which almost distresses me to death and the more so as it is not in my power to give your or them any Relief for by Bankruptcy and my long illness by the last I lost what little Business I had...35
Ironically, it may have been in death that Ramage restored some security to his family in America. As a Loyalist during the American Revolution, Ramage was entitled to crown lands in Canada awarded to veterans. According to Richard Dillon, a local hotel keeper who assisted the Ramage family from Montreal on the artist's death and who witnessed Ramage's last will and testament, this property was worth $5,000 in 1802.
His Training and Work
Ramage brought to England's rebellious American colonies a precise and rich manner of painting in miniature learned in his native Ireland. Entering the Dublin Society School in 1763, Ramage not only learned miniature painting in watercolor on ivory, pastel and crayon, but also goldsmithing such that he created the chased and sometimes jewel-set frames in which his miniature portraits were set. The school that Ramage attended was an outgrowth of The Dublin Society. Founded in 1731 to promote Ireland's arts industries, The Dublin Society ultimately assumed the support of several more specific technical schools for the teaching of figural, ornamental and architectural drawing. Robert West's drawing school, founded in 1746, was absorbed by The Dublin Society in 1750; James Mannin's ornamental drawing school was added in 1756 and an architectural drawing school under Thomas Ivory was added in 1764. In addition to teaching these skills by copying drawing and engraving, the school also taught according to the traditional apprenticeship system in which its students would train with established craftsmen.
John Ramage's miniatures are usually oval or almond-shaped and are typified by a blue greenish-brown background. Unlike many of his contemporaries whose paintings in miniature were formed by a stippled composition, Ramage built his portraits as a series of linear hatchings illuminated at the background to the left of the subject's right cheek.36 His subjects are distinctively detailed in their elements of costume, particularly lace, hair ornament, and in their facial shading, which in places tend toward blue. The jewel tones of his portrait miniatures and manner of layering color upon color have led Ramage's work in ivory to be compared to miniatures in fired enamel on metal, a process that is more painstaking and easily damaged with each firing, but richer in overall color quality. The settings in which Ramage mounted his portrait miniatures range in simplicity from a single bezel, often with an interior chased scalloped edge and sometimes set with a pierced flange for stringing as a bracelet or necklace, to sumptuous enameled and bejeweled mounts.37 While restrained in its conception as the setting for the First Citizen of the United States, the Washington portrait miniature frame is nonetheless among the more elaborate settings Ramage made, with its pointed oval shape, beaded edge, chased and scalloped interiors on both obverse and reverse, without resorting to additional materials. Beyond portraits in miniature, Ramage also did such stock production as allegorical designs, memento mori and ornamental hairwork (Figure 10). Ramage is not known ever to have signed his work.
Ramage's distinctive manner of shadowing his subject's faces may have been a technique brought to America directly from his training at the Dublin Society School. Another of the Society School working only slightly later than Ramage, George Place (c. 1760-1805) employed a similar facial shading and blue technique in his portraits.38
The Economics and Custom of Portraits in Miniature
The business and economy of miniature painting was traditionally separate and different from that of mainstream painting. Like other craft trades, the technique was taught through an apprenticeship system of at least seven years before an artist could establish an independent business. A successful artist could have studio assistants who studied with their masters, but also prepared, finished and copied their works. While the tradition of apprenticeships began to disappear through the mid-eighteenth century, the close master-pupil relationship continued longer among the enamelists and goldsmiths who painted miniatures. One result of this was that painting styles in miniatures changed more slowly over time compared to other branches of painting.39 With this institution of drawing academies at the mid-eighteenth century attracting a variety of multi-talented draughtsmen, even the traditional system among miniaturists began to break down. Unlike the trade format of an established history, portrait or landscape painter whose canvases would be produced in factory-like studio, the miniaturist's trade was usually not so remunerative that the artist could afford a separate or large studio. More often these objects were made out of the home without props or backgrounds, which were unnecessary to the finished product.40 Archibald Robertson, a Scottish artist for whom George and Martha Washington also sat, advised his brother, also a miniaturist, "All your work should be done in a rather dim than sharp light you can make it more mellow." 41
Given the modest amounts charged for portraits in miniature, financial support required a larger customer base than other forms of painting. Traditionally, socially well-connected or well-placed portrait miniaturists could rely on steady work through those personal connections. With the advent of artist schools and academies, miniaturists could gain prominence at annual academy exhibitions. Accordingly, by moving to New York where comparatively few miniaturists were established, Ramage could reasonably expect to develop such a clientele, which he did until his financial hardship of 1794. Despite his commission to paint the most internationally famous citizen of the United States in 1789, Ramage was subsequently unable to translate his skill beyond his adoptive country. Perceived as an American himself, Ramage was jailed on arrival in Canada for the hearsay offense of having once spoken favorably of Americans. With success in the portrait miniatures industry dependent on wide-ranging connections producing numerous commissions, and with anti-American sentiment running high in Canada immediately following America's independence, it was unlikely that Ramage would ever have been able to become solvent again by means of his trained profession.