From Paris to New York City: Hedgehog Hair, c1785

It's a still-too-popular myth that early Americans were unfashionably plain and self-sufficient, wearing simply braided hair and clothes of homespun fabric. In this unrealistic vision of 18thc life, women not only tended the sheep, but spun the wool, wove the thread into fabric, and then cut and sewed all the clothes for their family.

Well, no. Very little fabric was produced at home, and nearly all of it was imported. People who lived along the coast were eager to follow the fashions of Paris and London, and the latest styles were imported along with fine woolens, silks, cottons, and linen. Even settlers and Native Americans living on the frontier traded for woolen cloth made in England. European visitors were surprised by how fashionable Americans were, and how the ladies in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York followed the same trends as their sisters abroad.

These two portraits show how swiftly and thoroughly fashion came across the Atlantic. The portrait, left, of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, was painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1785. The queen wears her hair in the latest style, a la hérisson, or the hedgehog, devised by her hairdresser Léonard-Alexis Autié. Monsieur Léonard (as he was known at court) cut the front of the queen's hair shorter, brushed it with a scented "hard" pomade made from beeswax, curled it on narrow rollers or with heated tongs, and frizzed it for extravagant volume. Unlike today, frizz was an 18thc lady's best friend, and the more, the better. Loose falling side curls towards the back soften the effect. Finally the entire hair is dusted with a starchy powder to whiten it. (See herehere, and here for more about 18thc hair powder and pomade.)

The queen not only favored this hairstyle, but found it was a good "support" for the oversized turbans, plumes, and poufs she liked to wear during this period. While white-powdered hair was beginning to fall from fashion - it disappeared for good with the French Revolution - the queen continued to powder her fair hair to an even whiter pallor, the better to show off her complexion in contrast.

Variations on the hedgehog style were popular throughout the 1780s. Many of the ladies in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough sport hedgehog-inspired hair, and the hairdressers of the recent movie The Duchess gave Kiera Knightley wigs with stupendous hedgehogs.

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In 1787, the style was being worn in New York City, too. The second portrait, right, by American artist Ralph Earl, is of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of then-member of the Continental Congress Alexander Hamilton; she's also the heroine of my upcoming book I, ELIZA HAMILTON. The Hamiltons were a fashionable young couple in Federalist New York City and in Philadelphia, attending the theatre, balls, and dinners with equally fashionable friends, and would have been very aware of European styles in hair and dress.

In her portrait, Eliza has clearly followed the royal trend-setter. Some historians (male, and dismissive of fashion history) describe her as wearing a wig, but that's her own hair, frizzed and powdered into an elegant hedgehog. It's a surprisingly close copy of the queen's hair, down to the horizontal falling curls at the back, although Eliza chose a simpler headdress of fine linen or silk gauze instead of Marie-Antoinette's plumed turban.

That snowy white hair must have taken a considerable amount of powder to achieve, too, for beneath it Eliza's natural hair color was described as a very dark brown, almost black - you can see it showing through the powder. So much powder made a statement of affluence as well. Hair powder was considered a luxury good, and while flour could be substituted as a low-cost alternative in a pinch, the best powder was imported, a finely ground mixture of starch, bone, and orris root for scent. It's likely that Eliza wore her hair this heavily powdered only for special occasions, and by the time she sat for another portrait in the 1790s, she'd given it up, and is shown wearing her own dark hair. There is, however, a record of Eliza receiving a gift of hair powder in 1780 from Martha Washington - a thoughtful present from another 18thc lady who enjoyed a good powdering. 

Above left: Marie Antoinette with a Rose by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lower right: Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott will be published September 26, 2017, by Kensington Books. Pre-order now: http://amzn.to/2pISbjG

History Mystery: Is This a Forgotten Portrait of Angelica Schuyler Church?

Anyone familiar with the musical Hamilton already knows the name Angelica Schulyer Church (1756-1814). In fact, in most Hamil-fan circles, she's called just Angelica, the Schuyler sister who's famously never satisfied.

Anyone alive in late 18thc London and Paris would have recognized her name, too, for she was certainly the best-known American woman in the fast set of English society. Born into a wealthy Dutch-American family in Albany, NY, she eloped with John Church, a slightly shady Englishman who made his fortune selling arms during the American Revolution. After the war, John took Angelica and their children back to England, where he became a landed gentleman and a member of parliament. Angelica combined  her wit, beauty, and vivacious character with her husband's money to make her drawing room one of THE places to see and be seen in Georgian London.

Angelica was admired by gentlemen as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, the Prince of Wales, the Marquis de Lafayette, Whig party leader Charles James Fox and playwright Richard Brinsely Sheridan. She was a patron of artists Benjamin West, John Trumbull, and Maria Cosway. She may (or may not) have had an affair with Thomas Jefferson, and she may (or may not) have had one with her brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton, too.

To me, she's the older sister of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, the heroine of my new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton (to be published by Kensington Books in September, 2017.) I've been wallowing deep in my research of the Schuyler and Hamilton families for a good long time now. Characters become very real to me (especially the ones who were real people - I know, weird writer problems) to the point that I half-expect to run into them at the local grocery.

So imagine my surprise when the lovely face, right, turned up in my Instagram feed this morning. Posted by the account of the Philip Mould Gallery in London, this portrait is by the well-known Georgian miniature painter Samuel Shelley (1750-1808). Shelley was famous for painting society beauties of the day, and this one - identified only as a portrait of a lady - is a gorgeous example of his work.

I'm also convinced it's a forgotten portrait of Angelica Schuyler Church.

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There are only two other portraits of Angelica known today. One is a portrait of her with her son and servant by the American artist John Trumbull, detail, right, and the other a print after a painting by English artist Richard Cosway. To my eye, the Trumbull and Shelley portraits show the same woman. It's an uncommon face for an 18thc beauty: a long nose (which also turns up in portraits of her father), a small mouth, the dark, slightly close-set eyes. The Shelley miniature also seems to capture both the flirtatious charm and intelligence that Angelica's contemporaries all mention.

From the clothes and hair style, I'd guess that this portrait was painted in the 1780s, the time when Angelica was living in London. The art world in London at the time was a small one; another portraitist, Maria Cosway, was one of Angelica's closest friends, and it's easy to imagine Maria introducing Samuel Shelley to Angelica as a possible patron.

I've written to Emma Rutherford, the consultant specializing in miniatures for Philip Mould with my thoughts. In the meantime, what do you think? Is this Angelica?

Above left: Portrait of a Lady by Samuel Shelley, image via Philip Mould Gallery.
Left: Portrait of Mrs. John Barker Church (Angelica Schuyler), Son Philip, and Servant by John Trumbull, c1785, private collection
 

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott will be published September 26, 2017, by Kensington Books. Pre-order now: http://amzn.to/2pISbjG