There are only two known portraits of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757–1854) from the time of her marriage to Alexander Hamilton (1755/1757-1804). I’ve shared them both here in earlier posts: the first by Ralph Earl, painted in 1787, here, and the second, a profile portrait in pastels by James Sharples from around 1796, here. The fact that there are so few portraits of Eliza while dozens exist of her husband isn’t surprising, and not just because he was one one of the most powerful and influential men in the early republic, either.
Only a tiny percentage of 18th century Americans sat for their portrait. Few professional portraitists were working in the new country, and their pictures were expensive. Men were painted in honor of their wealth, power, and success, in business, politics, or war. Male portraits were intended to present a permanent record of accomplishment. Portraits of women were usually much less complicated. Most often painted around the time of a woman’s marriage, they were intended to record the sitter’s beauty, grace, and fertility, with equal emphasis on her rich clothing and jewels. If she was painted again later in her marriage, the portrait often included a child or two. The very few portraits of older women usually show them as a matriarch, part of an extended family grouping.
These portraits of Eliza Hamilton, however, are different. When Alexander died from his wounds following his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, Eliza was plunged into a widowhood that would last until her death a half-century later. She never remarried, or was ever linked to another man, which was unusual for widows and widowers at the time. From contemporary descriptions and the three portraits shown here, she also apparently continued to wear a variation of the mourning dress in fashion around the time of her husband’s death, with a pleated white ruffle around the neck and a frilled white cap to relieve the black of her dress - which, by the 1830s, must have seemed old-fashioned indeed.
But my guess is that the mourning dress had another purpose beyond simply honoring Alexander’s memory. Soon after Alexander’s death, Eliza became the directress of the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, which she had helped to found with her friends Isabella Graham and Joanna Bethune. Not only was Eliza overseeing the everyday care of the orphans, but she was also managing the Asylum’s finances and making appeals for support of the Society.
Her dark dress would have been serviceable both for long hours and as a constant reminder to any potential donors of who she was: the widow of Alexander Hamilton. She was in fact a full-time professional woman in a time when few women of her background worked outside their home, but I’m sure it served her - and her cause - to continue to wear the “uniform” of mourning. Her somber, simple dress would have continued to hold that same symbolism as she fought tirelessly to preserve her husband’s reputation, both in New York City and later in Washington, DC. Dressed in black, she had a gravity that instantly earned her respect.
The two earlier portraits descended through the Hamilton family, and were likely commissioned by one of her sons or other family members. The dates are uncertain, but Eliza is probably in her fifties or sixties, and her small smile - so similar to her smile in the 1787 portrait - hints at the kindness and good humor for which she was known. They’re affectionate images to remember a woman who was loved.
The portrait at the top shows an older Eliza, and was painted by Daniel Huntington, possibly around the time Eliza retired from the Asylum in her early nineties. There’s no smile here, nor is it sentimental. Instead Eliza looks determined, a little flinty, even satisfied, as if she’s well aware of all she has accomplished in her long life. Her back is straight and her chin is held high, forthright and direct. If there’s weariness in the lines in her face, then they’re well-earned, and she doesn’t care who sees it. This portrait didn’t belong to a family member, but to the Orphan Asylum (later evolving into the Graham Windham of today), and hung for many years at the Graham School in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. It’s currently on display at the National Museum of American History as part of the ongoing "Giving in America" exhibition. The exhibition is made possible by the Smithsonian Philanthropy Initiative, and is dedicated to the American tradition of giving, in all its forms and at every level. There couldn’t be a more fitting place for a portrait of Eliza Hamilton.
Many thanks to Amanda Moniz, Curator of Philanthropy, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, for her assistance with this post.
Top: Detail, Portrait of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton (Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton) by Daniel Huntington, mid-1800s. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian.
Middle left: Elizabeth Schuyler, Widow of Alexander Hamilton, American School, c1815-25, Cincinnati Art Museum.
Lower right: Miniature of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton by Henry Inman, c1825, New-York Historical Society.