The daughter of Aaron and Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr, Theodosia Burr Alston (1783-1812) was the only one of the couple’s four children to survive to adulthood. Young Theodosia and her father were extremely close, and drew closer still after mother Theodosia (I know, it’s confusing that they shared the same name) died in 1794.
Burr insisted that his daughter be educated with the same rigor usually reserved for boys, and from an early age her day was tightly scheduled with tutors and teachers who taught her classical languages, French, science, mathematics, geography, philosophy, and literature. Nor were the more “ornamental” accomplishments neglected, either: she also had a dancing master and music lessons. Intellectually gifted (and eager to please her doting father), Theodosia proved herself to be a dedicated student. The result was that by the time she turned eighteen and soon after married Joseph Alston, Theodosia was arguably the most comprehensively educated woman in America. According to contemporary reports, she was also charming, attractive, poised, stylish, and able to discuss just about anything with anyone. She was a true paragon, and her proud father adored her.
This delightful small portrait of Theodosia as a young girl with a bird on a string was likely made around 1788-1790. It’s called a dressed portrait since the figure - delicately cut from paper and detailed with colored pencil - was dressed in scraps of silk fabric and lace, a style that today we’d call collage. There is also a matching dressed portrait of the elder Theodosia, likely done at the same time. The Burrs had many family members in Connecticut, including Aaron Burr’s only sibling, his sister Sally Burr Reeve, and it’s possible that the two Theodosias sat for their portraits while on a visiting relatives. While the pair of portraits remained together for more than two hundred years, they were sadly separated at a 21stc auction, and now belong to different collections.
The artist is Mary Way (1769–1833), who, along with her younger sister Betsy Way Champlain (1771–1825) practiced this distinctive style of portraiture along with more traditional watercolors and drawings on paper and ivory. Without any formal training in academic art, the two created profile portraits of women, men, and children of some of the most notable families around New London, CT from the late 1780s to the early 1800s.
In 1811, the unmarried Mary Way - unencumbered by either a husband or children - took a remarkably independent step for any woman of her time, especially at age forty-two: she moved to New York City for the sake of her career. There she studied with leading artists like John Wesley Jarvis, and exhibited her work at the American Academy of the Fine Arts with great success.
Tragically, neither Theodosia Burr Alston nor Mary Way had happy endings to their lives. Theodosia was plagued with debilitating ill health following the birth of her only son (who died from a childhood fever), and she herself was lost at sea shortly before her thirtieth birthday. Thanks to a lovely song in Hamilton: An American Musical, Theodosia is once again being remembered, and studied by scholars. (She and her mother are also both prominent characters in my new historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr.)
After only nine years as a professional artist in New York, Mary Way’s eyesight began to fail, forcing her to abandon her career and return to New London and the care of her extended family. She died blind, forgotten, and impoverished in 1833. Today, however, she is recognized as one of the most important miniature artists of 18thc America, and her work is prized by collectors and museums. Check out this clip from Antiques Roadshow to see exactly how high her artistic stock has risen.
This portrait of Theodosia Burr by Mary Way is included in the new exhibition Hamilton and Burr: Who Wrote Their Stories?, currently on display at Winterthur Museum, Gardens, and Library. Many thanks to Rebecca Duffy, curator of the exhibition, for her assistance with this post.
Above: Theodosia Burr by Mary Way, c1786-94, private collection.
My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.