Hannah Babcock (Mrs. John Bours), 1759
The subjects off-white dress has a low-cut, nearly square neckline and is embellished with a transparent collar, white lace at the neck and sleeves, and blue ribbons at the bodice and cuffs. The tight bodice is further ornamented with two rows of white floral embroidery framing a narrow V-shaped panel at the center of her torso; a strand of pearls begins at the middle of the ribbon on her bodice and forms a pair of mirrored arches that extend to her sides at the waist. Her skirt billows widely and, like the loosely draped fabric of her sleeves, shimmers in deep and shallow folds.
The figure is set in a garden with a reddish-brown urn on a pedestal behind her at the right and trees and an orange-tinged sky to the left. The sky is blue-green behind the figure and pure blue in the upper-left corner. The largest tree forms a diagonal from the upper-left corner of the canvas to the young womans proper right shoulder and arm. The tiered curves and volumes of the urn loosely trace an inverted outline of the young womans head, body, and dress. The background objectsurn, trees, and bushesare painted in broad, loose brushstrokes.
Hannah married John Bours (17341815) at Trinity Church, Newport, on July 7, 1762.4 The families of the young couple were acquainted because Dr. Babcock and Johns father, Peter Bours (about 1705/061761), served together in the colonial general assembly. Hannah bore eleven children, the first five of whom died in childhood, four in infancy.5 John Bours was a merchant at the Sign of the Golden Eagle, Thames Street, where he sold English, Continental, and West Indian imports, including fabrics, metals, jewelry, sugar, rice, coffee, tea, wine, rum, raisins, lemons, and spices.6 For many years, he was treasurer of the Redwood Library in Newport, and served on its board of directors.7 He also was active in the Trinity Church as vestryman and church warden; in 1782 Bours acted as lay reader in the absence of a minister, and two years later, he declined a request that he "enter into holy orders and become their minister."8
Hannah Babcock Bourss gravestone reads simply: "Sacred/ May this stone long remain/ a Tribute of Affection/ to the memory of/ HANNAH BOURS/ wife of JOHN BOURS/ and DAUGHTER of/ JOSHUA BABCOCK/ late of Westerly/ in this state/ who died Decembr 17th 1796/ aged 54 years."9
Blackburns skill at painting costume is evident in this portrait, where he has convincingly represented the lustrous surface of satin and the delicate character of lace. Hannahs generalized features, consisting of soft, nearly geometric volumes, suggest that the portrait is as much an idealization of female beauty as it is a carefully delineated likeness. Her smooth features and light skin convey her youth and comeliness, and her erect posture demonstrates her feminine grace.
Hudsons portrait, in turn, owes its composition largely to that of Peter Paul Rubenss Helena Fourment (fig. 2), which had entered the famous English collection of Sir Robert Walpole about 1730.13 Rubenss portrait remained influential in London well beyond Blackburns departure for the colonies, inspiring additional portraits by Hudson as well as by Thomas Gainsborough, Joseph Highmore, John Hoppner, Joseph van Aken, Allan Ramsay, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney.14 Wearing Van Dyck costume was popular in London in the 1730s and 1740s, and being portrayed in this manner would have been a statement of the sitters sophistication. For an American sitter, aspirations to fashionability were well served by this model. Copley borrowed from the same source in his portrait Mrs. Samuel Quincy (Hannah Hill) (about 1764, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), perhaps following the lead of Blackburn, who had a decided impact on the native-born painter in the late 1750s. Copley might have had the opportunity to see Blackburns Hannah Babcock when he painted his likeness of the young womans husband, John Bours, though the place and time of that commission have not been firmly established.15
Costume portraits were popular in eighteenth-century London, where sitters might actually dress as they appeared in such portraits for masquerade balls. As Horace Walpole noted in a 1742 letter, at one a masquerade he saw "quantities of Vandykes, and all kinds of old pictures walked out of their frames."16 In a more obvious pictorial reference to costume than that found in Hannah Babcock, the portrait Sarah Riddell Harvey (about 175253, private collection, Bermuda), Blackburn depicted a young woman holding a black mask. Despite this continuity of interest between London and the colonies, the costume historian Aileen Ribeiro argues that American women did not have the opportunity to wear such clothes to costume balls.17 Their identification with the London vogue for Van Dyck costume was limited to the imagination, and its realization in portraiture.
John Singleton Copley produced a portrait of Hannahs husband about 176062. John Bours is painted on the same scale and also in a three-quarter-length format; perhaps it was intended to hang as a pendant to his wifes depiction by Blackburn. Bours is seated and faces right, with a book in his right hand and his left hand lifted to his brow. He is set outdoors in a loosely brushed landscape that resembles the one in Hannah Babcocks portrait; similarly smoky hues are lightened with peach-colored clouds. That the two paintings are framed nearly identically in solid, shallow-carved frames further suggests that they may have hung in the Bours house as a pair. In one respect, however, these portraits are strikingly different: the mood of whimsy and the emphasis on fashion and display in Hannahs portrait contrast sharply with the sense of introspection in Johns. Dr. Babcocks probate inventory further supports the idea that the portrait of Hannah hung in her fathers house until his death in 1783. Probably, both pictures were together after that, as they descended in the family of her youngest son, Luke Bours (17841842), who settled in Charleston, South Carolina.22
The pairing of a female portrait by Blackburn and a male companion by Copley is found in other New England families of the day. For instance, Blackburns three-quarter-length Mrs. Epes Sargent (Catharine Winthrop) (about 1755) preceded Copleys Epes Sargent (1760, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) in the same format; and a pair of half-lengths was painted by Blackburn, Catherine Saltsonstall Richards (1762) and Copley, John Richards (177071) (both at Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., New York, as of 1983). Blackburns Mrs. Thomas Flucker (Hannah Waldo) (1755) predates Copleys Thomas Flucker (177072) (both Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine), but the two are in different formats. It is tempting to see Blackburns rococo style as a feminine counterpart to Copleys more masculine realism. But the commissions may also reflect a shift in taste, the ascendance of Copley as the more esteemed painter, or simply Blackburns absence when the second portraits were desired.
2. For Joshua Babcocks biography, see Dexter 1885, 29394; Babcock 1903, 3033; and Brown 1909, 1517.
3. Newport Mercury, April 5, 1783.
4. Rhode Island Vital Records X, 1898, 437.
5. Rhode Island Vital Records, n.s., v. 11; Newport Burial Ground 1985, 4546; "Descendants of Peter Bours," Redwood Library and Athenaeum, web site.
6. Newport Mercury, September 18, 1759; April 28, 1761; March 23, 1762; May 27, 1765; August 19, 1765.
7. Mason 1891.
8. Mason 1890, 168.
9. Recorded by Laura K. Mills, Common Burial Ground, Newport, R.I.
10. Stevens 1967, 95107.
11. Dresser 1961, 36, 3738.
12. Park 1919a, 7578.
13. Steegman 1936, 30915.
14. Ribeiro 1984, 14457.
15. Paul Staiti dates the Bours portrait to about 1770 in Rebora 1995, 264.
16. Walpole, as quoted in Miles and Simon 1979, cat. no. 15, n.p.
17. Ribeiro 1995, 106.
18. Babcock 1903, 6465.
19. Dr. Levi Wheaton, as quoted in Updike 1907, II, 49.
20. Updike 1907, I, 223.
21. Joshua Babcock estate inventory.
22. Rhode Island Vital Records X, 1898, 483 and XIX, 1910, 361; "Bours Family," typescript, object file, Worcester Art Museum.