Tuesday, August 18, 2015

August/September Newsletter: Embroidery art by Faith Trumbull (Huntington)

As we’ve all learned in our studies in school, the early American woman did all of her sewing by hand. In the beginning, fabric was very hard to come by, so women would re-stitch and  re-stitch garments to make them last.

As the colonists acquired more wealth through trade, more luxurious items came their way. Sewing was still done by hand; the first, widely used sewing machine wouldn’t be invented until 1829. By the mid-1700s, the middle and upper middle classes were growing by leaps and bounds. People were going to school, owning shops, offering services, exporting and importing. And with this prosperity, came the tailor and dressmaker, although many household items were still made at home, such as:  window treatments, bed coverings, etc.

One such handmade item was the embroidered sampler. Girls were taught how to embroider, as early as five years of age, at home from either Mother or Grandmother. There were some community schools called dame schools run by a local unmarried woman (of course!), where children learned the craft.

For a wealthy family, who could send their girls to school, embroidery was part of the curriculum along with the three Rs, classical languages, music, drawing, painting, good manners and sewing.

Faith Trumbull (Huntington) was born into one of these wealthy families in 1743 in the town of Lebanon, Conn. Her father, who had studied to be a minister at Harvard College, joined his father as a merchant. He would later become governor of the Connecticut colony and also the state after Independence. He was the only governor in the colonies who sided with the rebels.

Faith was sent to boarding school twice in Boston where she learned the practice of embroidery, using patterns, either created by local teachers or from pattern books. The first pattern book was printed in Germany in 1524 and pattern pamphlets were available in France from 1586. So it was not uncommon for these wealthy girls to have access to highly-skilled patterns from which they created elaborate designs. Here is one:

There were usually two types of samplers created by the colonial girl. The first, and most important, was the traditional one we are most familiar with, illustrating the alphabet and numbers. Here a young girl would learn how to become proficient at needlework and improve her literacy. Sometimes there would be a poem as well as floral and/or animal motifs. In fact, I read one article that told of a young girl who wrote out a poem expressing her dislike of embroidery, right there for the entire world to see.

The other type of embroidery was more elaborate, which may even include a pastoral scene. This latter one was usually accomplished much later by students and under the tutelage of a teacher at a boarding school.

What sets Faith apart from most of the girls of her time was that she created her own scenes, albeit copied from 17th century Dutch engravings that made their way to the colonial shores. What she did is not unlike other artists who learned from the masters and created paintings from that knowledge. But for Faith, instead of using oil or watercolor, she used silk thread.

Her first picture was copied after the work of Nicholas Pietersz Bercham (1620-1683) and engraved by Cornelis Visscher (1629-1658). The painting was entitled, Woman Milking Cows in Landscape (1665). The original painting was hard to find on the Internet, but after a little bit of time, I did find it and here it is below:

And here is the engraving below done by Visshcer:

And lastly, here is the embroidery below done by Faith:
One can see that Faith copied off the engraving and not the painting. And she made her own changes. The piece was done mostly in satin stitch on pale blue silk. She painted the hair, face, arms, and hands in gouache. Today, the paint has cracked but not flaked. The barefooted milk maid now is wearing shoes, while the woman standing is graced with a wonderful striped dress. Instead of the baskets being filled with market food, they appear to be flowers.

Over-mantel I
The other two pictures attributed to Faith are over-mantels.  These compositions are more complex and I believe show a marked improvement from the first.

Notice how much more complicated and complex this composition is. There are houses and animals as well as the reappearance of the milk maid. In the foreground is a woman playing a flute with her dog as a companion.

Created on satin silk, the painting was done with silk thread and painted with mica (for windows) and gouache. It measures 20 3/8” x 51 1/16. While the drawing and planning for this would take some time, I can’t even image how long this would take to embroider.

Over-mantle II Three Vignettes

The third picture is another over-the-mantel and was her most ambitious. If you go from left to right in the picture you will see three vignettes. On the far left is a woman seated next to a man with a square birdcage. To his right is a shepherdess. This was inspired by Les Amours du Bocage (1730) by Nicolas de Larmessin (1694-1755), as we can see below:

The engraving:

The second vignette is a young woman milking a cow and is definitely reminiscent of the original milking scene by Bercham.

The third vignette however, comes from Landscape with Shepherds by Francesco Zuccarelli (1702-1788). Here’s his drawing done in black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown and gray wash heightened with white gouache:

Perhaps you may think, it can't be that hard to draw these pictures and add thread. After all, they're just copies. As an embroiderer and cross-stitcher in my previous life, I think it’s harder to work with fiber sometimes than any other media, save maybe clay and stone. For instance, here are two close up views of Faith’s needlework mastery:

Every bit of space is covered, except for the black shoes, pants and hat.

I guess the only process that seems as tedious and requires as much commitment would be stippling, placing one dot down at a time.

But the story isn’t over
We never know who we influence. Faith's brother John, fifteen years her junior, would admire her work on the walls in the family home. Finding inspiration from her mastery, he would later grow up to be an artist himself (one of the most celebrated in our history). As he said, “These wonders were hung in my mother’s parlor, and were among the first objects that caught my infant eye. I endeavored to imitate them.”

He went on to be the famous John Trumbull who painted the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1819. More on him next month.

A tragic ending to a talented life
Faith married into another wealthy family. Her husband Jedidiah Huntington was also a graduate of Harvard College and joined his father managing his West India trading company. They had a son, Jabez. Faith suffered from what was called melancholia  or today, clinical depression, so much so that Jedidiah’s parents often watched over Jabez.

Then came the Revolutionary War, which didn’t help her condition at all. Her husband, her father, and her two brothers were part of the Continental Army. What’s worse, on June 17, 1775, she witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Sometime later, she seemed to be getting better and was even looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving. But her husband was called away by his regiment and the next morning she hanged herself at the early age of 32.

This story truly affected me. I was so sad when I learned that such a talented and gifted person died so young and at her own hand. Her art is even more precious to me now.

Next month I’ll relate the interesting story of John Trumbull, which will conclude this series on Colonial American Art.

New Workshops and Classes planned for Fall 2015
See left sidebar for listing. For complete information and schedules 
go to Glastonbury Studios website.

Taking reservations for Sketching the English Village Workshop Now

Deadline for sign-ups with $50 deposit: September 30, 2015*
For more information go to:

*This is to reserve your spot. Full tuition ($700) is due  November 15. Deposit  and tuition are refundable if workshop is cancelled by me.

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