The romance between Eliza Schuyler, the second daughter of a socially prominent Albany family, and Lt. Colonel Alexander Hamilton, penniless but with plenty of promise, has long been a favorite for historical storytellers. It's also the inspiration of this sweetly charming painting, generously shared with me by the Albany Group Archives on flickr (check out their account here, and their Facebook page here.)
The title of this painting is "The Courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler", and it was painted in 1935 by David Cunningham Lithgow (1868-1958). A native of Glasgow, Scotland, Lithgow emigrated to America as a young man and set up his studio in Albany, becoming one of the city's leading artists. His work included paintings, sculptures, book illustrations, and historical murals such as this one.
According to the caption provided by Albany Group Archives, Lithgow painted the mural in 1935 for the Milne School (now Milne Hall, part of the downtown campus of University at Albany.) He also painted other historical murals for the New York State Museum, which acknowledges on its website that although Lithgow's paintings were "based on some historical research and sensitivity....they all require strong leaps of faith for adequate historical credibility."
That's certainly the case with this painting. Perceptions of 18thc America have changed considerably since 1935, and modern research offers a less "prettified" view of both the Schuyler Mansion shown in the background, and the courtship itself. For example, the painting includes the hexagonal entryway and the railing along the roof that were 19thc additions to the house, and shows lavishly floral landscaping that was much more in the style of 1930 than 1780.
There was also no "courting" done between Alexander and Eliza during the summer months in Albany. They agreed to marry during the army's winter encampment in Morristown, NJ, in the late winter of 1780. After that, Alexander's military duties separated him from Eliza until shortly before their wedding in Albany in wintery December.
But that's not all. The Schuyler family enslaved around thirty individuals of African descent, with many employed as house servants, yet it's doubtful any of them were dressed like the stereotypical servant with a salver in the background. In fact, the clothing on all the figures is the stuff of Colonial Revival fantasies combined with Hollywood glamour, including Eliza's skeptical yet jaunty pose, one hand on her hip and the other on her chin like some wise-cracking starlet.
Detail, details, and yet the painting still made me smile. How could it not? But listen up, Alexander: you're going to have to offer more than a random finger-point to convince Eliza of your endless devotion....
"The Courtship of Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton" by David Cunningham Lithgow, 1935. Image courtesy of the Milne Class of 1961, from AlbanyGroup Archive on flickr.