Currently Reading – Portrait of a Woman in Silk

I think I’ve mentioned here that my first history obsession was with the American colonial period.  Since my college days I’ve gone on to other interests, but I’ve recently rediscovered  early American history after reading a biography of Abigail Adams, and then I discovered my latest podcast love, Ben Franklin’s World. It was through Ben Franklin’s World that I found the book that is today’s topic.  The author, Zara Anishanslin, was the featured guest on the podcast, and she made her book sound so interesting that I had to read it.

And I’m so glad that I did.  I love biographies, and you might say the book is a biography of the portrait, which weaves together the stories of four people who had a hand in the creation of it – the woman who designed the pattern of the silk, the man who wove the silk, the woman who wore the dress, and the man who painted the portrait.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of “material culture” (otherwise known as stuff) and what we can learn from from objects from the past.  And while I usually explore the not so distant past, it was so interesting to see a historian travel back 250 years to see what evidence can be found in portraits, bits of silk, drawings, not to mention the usual historical sources of written records.  The challenge of this study was that there were few written records.  None of the four people involved left written accounts of their lives. Other written evidence was sketchy, such as mentions in guild records or other people’s letters.

So Anishanslan turned to what was plentiful – the objects themselves, especially the portrait and others painted by the artist, Robert Feke.  It’s helpful to know how to “read” a portrait, and Anishanslin provides plenty of instruction in the symbolism and clues found in a colonial portrait.  I had no idea you could learn so much about a person just by the careful examination of her portrait.

The woman in the portrait is Anne Shippen Willing, and it now hangs at Winterthur in Delaware.  It was Anishanslin’s recall of the portrait as she was examining designs for Spitalfields silk fabrics housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum that led to her research.  Seeing the similarities between the dress in the portrait and the designs in the museum, she was then able to find the original drawing for that particular piece of silk, which was drawn by Anna Maria Garthwaite.  From there she discovered that the weaver of the cloth was Spitalfields weaver Simon Julins.

One important person that could have added to this story that was not uncovered by Anishanlin was the dressmaker who constructed the dress.  It’s a shame that her (the dressmaker’s) work was not somehow recorded.  But then, she was just a seamstress, out of a multitude of sewers working in a city like Philadelphia, where Willing lived.  If only Willing had kept a diary!

It’s rather amazing that one portrait could inspire an entire book, but Anishanlin left no stone unturned in her pursuit of her subjects. The book is full of tangents and detours, and it is all the richer for them.  This book is not just about the portrait, or the fabric, or the people directly involved in the creation of the two.  There’s a rich study of the importance of botany in the eighteenth century, a close look at New England trade and the merchants who got rich off from trans-Atlantic trade, and the role of slavery in both Philadelphia and New England.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk


Filed under Currently Reading

16 responses to “Currently Reading – Portrait of a Woman in Silk

  1. Thank you Lizzie! I wish I had taken the time to finish my art history in art college (Corcoran). I was too busy with fashion illustration. I love spending time with my curator friends who have discussed reading portraiture with me. This book will be a huge treat!


  2. Ruth

    Well, it’s not silk, but thought you might like this. The Met is such a wonderful reference tool!


    • I adore that! It’s wasted on the Met, as I’m sure it isn’t “art” in Andrew Bolton’s eyes.


      • Ruth

        I was wondering the other day how that’s going to affect the costume section of the Met, but hopefully it’s separate. I love going through the costumes and seeing what they look like. They are always well displayed and photographed (usually) so you can get a good look at them.


  3. Ruth

    And I have to say, the poor woman looks somewhat miserable in the portrait. She is probably corseted tighter than normal, got to show your best figure, and her cheeks seem abnormally red. Though that could just be rouge or it was hot when the picture was painted. She does look somewhat pleased, so she may have been very happy in her beautiful dress.


  4. Ellen Ruggles

    I am going to add this one to my list to read. Always like it when you recommend a book on fashion. Enjoy your blog.
    Thank you.


  5. Sounds wonderful, Lizzie. I have added this book to my queue. Thank you!


  6. I’ve just requested the book from interlibrary loan. Thanks!


  7. seweverythingblog

    Thanks for your post! I’m off to look for this fascinating book.


  8. Zara Anishanslin

    Just stumbled across this, and wanted to say thanks so much for reading, and for this really great take on it. Delighted you enjoyed it!


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