There are numerous portraits of Alexander Hamilton (you may even be carrying one in your wallet on a ten-dollar-bill), but only a handful of his wife, Eliza. The most famous portrait of Eliza is by the American artist Ralph Earl, painted in 1787. It belongs to the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, but the last time I tried to see the painting, I was told it was on loan to another institution.
Imagine my surprise, then, to come face to face with the portrait where I didn't expect it - in the new American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, VA. The portrait is included in an exhibition called "AfterWARd: The Revolutionary Veterans Who Built America" (now on display through November 27, 2017), in a section devoted to Alexander. I tuned a corner, and there she was, and yes, I gasped out loud.
She's much more beautiful in person. The colors of the painting are much richer, more vibrant, than in reproductions. Her expression seemed more lively, too, especially her famous dark eyes, praised for their beauty by Alexander. To me she looked as if she took posing very seriously, but also couldn't wait to be done so she could once again relax, and speak, and laugh at the vanity of having her portrait painted.
This was no ordinary portrait sitting, either. In the all-too-unfortunate way of all too many artists, Ralph Earl was far better at painting than at business, and he had been imprisoned for debt. Eighteenth century debtors were held in gaol until their debts were paid, a system that had its challenges: how could the debtor work to pay off his debts while languishing in prison? Alexander heard of Earl's plight, and resolved to help. He commissioned Earl to paint Eliza's portrait, hoping that other prominent women in New York City would follow the Hamiltons' example, while a charitable group dedicated to the relief of prisoners supplied Earl with fresh paints, brushes, and canvas. Dressed in an elegant white silk dress, her dark hair frizzed and powdered in the latest style, Eliza went for her sittings in a room set aside for the purpose in the city's gaol. This beautiful painting is the result - and yes, other New York ladies did follow Eliza's example, and soon Earl was able to pay off his debts and resume his career in more civilized surroundings.
The curving desk and armchair in front of the portrait are original congressional furnishings from Federal Hall in New York City. They were made c1788, and first used by the Congress of the Confederation (1781-1789) followed by the Congress of the United States during the brief time when New York was the country's capitol, from 1785 to 1790. Alexander Hamilton served as a delegate to the Congress of the Confederation, and later joined President George Washington's first cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Both chair and desk are from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.