There are only two known portraits of Eliza Hamilton that date from the years of her marriage to Alexander Hamilton. One of them is the 1787 painting of her by American artist Ralph Earl, currently in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The second is this pastel drawing from around 1796 by the British artist James Sharples.
The drawing was likely made at the same time as a companion to this portrait, also drawn by Sharples, of Eliza’s husband Alexander Hamilton. While there are several versions of Alexander’s portrait, this is the only surviving version of Eliza’s. The Hamilton family regarded the Sharples picture of Alexander as the most favorable likeness of him of all his many portraits.
I wonder if they felt the same about this delightful portrait of Eliza. Captured with the hint of a smile, Eliza is shown in profile with her dark eyes, brows, and hair in contrast to her pale complexion. The stiffly arranged and powdered hair that Eliza wore for her 1787 portrait had gone out of fashion, and although ten years separate the two portraits, she looks younger here. Her hair is loosely tied with an oversize bow and draped with a strand of faux pearls. Her dress also reflects the newer styles coming into fashion, and is probably white cotton muslin, soft and airy. (Some of this softness may in fact be due to the condition of the drawing; pastels are fragile, and easily smudged.)
Eliza and Alexander likely sat for their portraits for James Sharples in New York City. An English artist, Sharples sailed to America with his family around 1796, where he found considerable success, capturing the likenesses of most of the famous Americans of the day. George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, James Monroe, and Aaron Burr were among those who sat for Sharples. The entire Sharples family worked to meet the demand for portraits, and his wife Ellen, herself a talented artist, often completed portraits for her husband, while his two sons, Felix and James, also drew original portraits and copies.
Sharples portraits like those of the Hamiltons are nearly all in profile, small in size (most are about 7”x9”), and done on the same soft grey paper. After the likeness was sketched, the ground pastel chalk was applied with a brush to complete the image. The Sharples family worked quickly: portraits were usually completed in two hours, at a cost of $10.
In 1799, Sharples was advertising an exhibition and sale of his portraits in his New York house: “Submitted to public inspection upwards of 200 original paintings of the most celebrated personages in the United States, besides foreign ministers and other foreigners of distinction.” Alexander’s portrait was among those featured in the advertisement. Eliza’s was not, which isn’t surprising. Not only was she a mere wife rather than a “celebrated personage”, but the almost ethereal informality of her portrait likely destined it for display not in a public gallery, but in the Hamilton home for family and friends.
Above: “Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton” by James Sharples, c1796-1800, private collection.
Read more about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.