Writing historical fiction has many challenges, but one of my favorite ones is describing my real-life characters so that readers can imagine them, too. For us who live in the Insta-age, images of people are captured and preserved without a thought. Anyone who possessing a cellphone can document his or her appearance and existence in as great detail as they wish for digital posterity.
This would have been unimaginable in the 18thc world that my characters inhabit. Portraiture was the work of skilled artists, and only the wealthy or important sat for portraits. In America, where there were far fewer professional artists than in Europe, portraits were rarer still. Even among the upper classes, most people had only one portrait painted of themselves during their entire lives, often to commemorate a wedding or other major event.
Aaron Burr was one of the exceptions. He was a member of an elite Connecticut family that was wealthy as well as prominent; his grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, a theologian, preacher, and philosopher, and one of the most famous men in 18thc New England. Burr relatives were painted by illustrious artists like John Singleton Copley, and it was to be expected that Aaron would at some point do the same.
But Aaron Burr accomplished more on his own than simply belonging to a famous family: first as a military hero during the American Revolution, followed by a stellar legal career, a term as a US senator, and finally serving as vice president. Any one of those achievements would have made him portrait-worthy.
But Burr also enjoyed art for its own sake, purchasing prints and paintings for his home, and he considered appreciation of art to be a gentlemanly quality worthy of cultivation. He was one of very few Americans of his generation to become a patron to an artist. Burr offered financial support, encouragement, and connections to the American painter John Vanderlyn, and funded his protégé’s trip to Paris to study with artists there. For a time, Vanderlyn even lived with Burr and his daughter Theodosia while he painted their portraits.
As I envisioned my fictional Aaron Burr, I had a wealth of portraits for inspiration. Like all portraits, however, these varied widely, and it’s fascinating to compare them. The ones I’m sharing here show Burr during the period covered in my historical novel The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, and each contributed something different to my impression of the man.
The portrait, above left, was painted in the early 1790s by Gilbert Stuart. Burr was in his late thirties, a newly-elected senator from New York serving in Congress in Philadelphia. He sat for Stuart in the artist’s studio, a short distance from Congress Hall on Chestnut Street. It’s a surprisingly informal and intimate portrait, showing Burr in an open-necked shirt worn with some kind of knotted silk scarf, his hair loose and unpowdered (and his receding hairline undisguised.) According to his letters home to his beloved wife Theodosia at this time, Burr was homesick and unhappy, and still finding his way in Congressional politics. It’s easy to imagine him having this portrait painted not just for posterity’s sake, but as a gift for his wife, suffering from the long illness that would eventually kill her.
Around 1796, Burr sat for the English artist James Sharples, right, who drew this portrait around 1796, again in Philadelphia. Sharples specialized in profile portraits in pastel chalks of famous politicians and other public figures. These were then exhibited to the public, with copies made to order by other members of the talented Sharples family. Senator Burr’s portrait, still in its original gilded exhibition frame, proves that he had “arrived” as a major political player, worthy of inclusion in Sharples’ collection. Although Burr is only around 40, his dark hair is powdered white as was customary for the time. It’s possible that Burr’s black clothing is mourning for his wife Theodosia, who had died in 1794.
In the late 1790s, Burr sat for the French engraver and portraitist Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, lower left. A refugee from the French Revolution, Saint-Mémin made portraits of many of the important figures of the day, much as James Sharples was doing. Also like Sharples, his portraits relied upon a recently invented device known as a physiognotrace to trace the sitter’s profile as the basis for the portrait. Saint-Mémin’s portrait of Burr shows him with his powdered hair more stylishly cropped at the sides, but with the long queue (ponytail) down the back - the Federalist gentleman’s version of a mullet. A confirmed Francophile, Burr had offered assistance to French refugees like Saint-Mémin, and commissioned the artist to draw portraits of both his daughter Theodosia and her close friend and aristocratic emigree Nathalie Marie Louise Stephanie Beatrix Delage de Volude.
The portrait of Burr at the top of this blog is probably the most famous image of him, and the one most frequently reproduced today. It’s certainly close to an “official” portrait. Painted by John Vanderlyn c1802, it shows Burr at the pinnacle of his political career, as vice president and second only to President Thomas Jefferson. Burr looks confident and direct, a leader of purpose and vision - which is probably exactly how he asked Vanderlyn to paint him.
But another Vanderlyn portrait, lower right, likely painted c1803, shows a much different Burr. By this time, Burr was aware of how Thomas Jefferson had effectively shut him out of the inner workings of both his administration, and the Democratic-Republican party. The political influence that Burr had so carefully gathered over the years was fading fast, and there would be no support for another chance at the presidency. Due to a series of disastrous financial decisions and misadventures, he was also deep in debt and perilously close to bankruptcy. Little wonder, then, that his famously expressive gaze here appears introverted and reflective, and perhaps even a little pensive.
A year later, in 1804, he would meet Alexander Hamilton on the dueling grounds of Weehawken. Although Burr survived, his life of power and prestige was effectively over, and there would be no further elegant portraits. The final surviving image of Aaron Burr is grim indeed: this posthumous death mask, now in the collection of his alma mater, Princeton University.
Upper left: Portrait of Aaron Burr by Gilbert Stuart, c1793, New Jersey Historical Society.
Upper right: Aaron Burr by James Sharples, c1796, Bristol Museums, Galleries, & Archives.
Lower left: Aaron Burr by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, after 1793, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Top: Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn, c1802, New-York Historical Society.
Lower right: Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn, c1803, Yale University Art Gallery.
My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.