Samuel Lovett Waldo
Electa Barrell Wilder (Mrs. Sampson Wilder)
about 1823

Electa Barrell Wilder (Mrs. Sampson Wilder) is a half-length portrait of a seated woman. The sitter’s head is turned slightly to the right, whereas her shoulders are nearly in three-quarters view and her lower body is in right profile. The sitter’s brown hair is braided and pinned on top of her head in a coil; she has tight curls at the sides of her face. Wilder’s skin is pale pink, with darker pink on the cheeks. Her eyes are blue.

The sitter wears a long-sleeve, rose-colored dress with a three-layered, cape-like collar that covers the shoulders. The dress is decorated with ribbons at the bodice and wrist; the collar and sleeve are trimmed with velvet that matches the color of the dress. At her neck, Mrs. Wilder wears a white, three-tiered ruff with an abstracted floral design that is comprised of an oval center and eight petals. Her sleeves are trimmed in white cuffs. A white shawl with a lavish border of yellow, orange, and red flowers, and green foliage is draped over the chair in which the sitter is posed; the shawl has fringe along its edge.

Mrs. Wilder sits in an armchair with a tan, upholstered armrest. The chair is decorated with classicized, foliate carving on the vertical element of the armrest. The sitter’s proper right arm bends at the elbow and her forearm rests on the arm of the chair. Her fingertips curl slightly under and are thereby cast into shadow by the light that falls from the upper left to the lower right. That light produces a shadow of the figure on the wall at lower right. There are also shadows under the ruff and collar of the dress, under the arm on the armrest and on the woman’s lap, and throughout the folds of the textiles. The olive-colored background is darker at the left side of the composition and lighter to the right of the figure.

Electa Barrell Wilder was born April 14, 1797, the second of four children of the Boston merchant Joseph Barrell, Jr. (1765–1801) and Electa Bingham Barrell.1 After Joseph Barrell’s premature death, the elder Electa moved the family to Northampton, Massachusetts. On June 15, 1814, seventeen-year-old Electa Barrell married thirty-four-year-old Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder (1780–1865), a successful merchant who made a fortune importing goods from France. The Wilders had eight children, four of whom lived to maturity.2 Shortly before their marriage, Sampson Wilder had returned to the United States from Paris as a result of the interruption of international commerce that was caused by the War of 1812. At about that time, he purchased a 600-acre estate in Bolton, Massachusetts. Between 1817 and 1823, Electa Wilder and her family lived in Paris, where her husband had resumed business.

In 1823, the Wilders returned permanently from Europe and settled in Bolton. Upon their arrival in New York, Stephen Salisbury II (1798–1884)—the Worcester businessman and father of the founder of the Worcester Art Museum–wrote of the Wilders:

Mr. S.V.S. Wilder with his lady and children arrived from France this morning and they keep in this house. Mr. Wilder retains the manners, or rather the formality which he had when he went abroad but has less of the flourish for which he was so remarkable; he seems to be greatly impressed in religion; he manifested very deep interest in serious things in a short conversation which I had with him before breakfast this morning; his wife appears very amiable and I think she is more beautiful than before she left the country; my mother will perhaps remember that I did not think her so beautiful as others considered her but now I know scarce one whom I think superior to her in this respect; they have several very beautiful children. Mr. Wilder tells me he has returned with the intention of making home at his farm Bolton.3

Two of Salisbury’s cousins, who were the daughters of Stephen’s paternal uncle Samuel Salisbury, had married Sampson Wilder’s business partners Stephen Higginson and John Tappan.

In 1824, the Wilders entertained the Marquis de Lafayette during his famous tour of the United States in honor of his contribution to the American Revolution.4 In 1830, they moved to Brooklyn and then New York City, where Sampson Wilder continued his work in international business. Following the collapse of the Bank of the United States–for which Sampson was an agent–and the Depression of 1838, the Wilders’ fortune was depleted. In 1852, they moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where their daughter Francina Haines had settled with her family. Electa’s husband died in 1865, and she died in Elizabeth on January 4, 1878. She was remembered in her obituary as follows:

As far back as the time of the First Napoleon her elegant Salons in Paris were the center, not of frivolous fashion, but of a refined hospitality and of Christian endeavor.

That mansion was the cradle of the Paris Bible Society and other philanthropic enterprises, in which her attractive person and manners, her feminine tacts, and her earnest love of truth and duty, were ‘helpsmeet’ indeed to her husband’s efforts for God and humanity.5

Sampson Wilder had founded the Bible Society in 1819 and was active in other evangelical Christian organizations; Electa clearly shared his beliefs.

This portrait is typical of the work of Samuel Lovett Waldo. His female sitters are often portrayed seated, either wearing a shawl or with one draped over the back of the chair. For instance, Lydia Butler Griffin (Mrs. George Griffin) (about 1827, New-York Historical Society, New York City), a portrait by Waldo and his partner William Jewett, includes a fringe-edged shawl covering the sitter’s shoulders and arms.6 Like Mrs. Wilder, that sitter also wears a ruffled collar. Another portrait by Waldo, Mrs. John Marshall Gamble (about 1816, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York), similarly portrays a seated woman draped in a shawl.

Figure 1. John Vanderlyn, Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder,about 1808–12, oil on canvas, 36 3/8 x 28 7/8 in. (92.4 x 73.3 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Gift of Lawrence Alan Haines in memory of his father, Wilder Haydn Haines, 1981.331

Electa Barrell Wilder (Mrs. Sampson Wilder) was painted as a companion to John Vanderlyn’s portrait of the sitter’s husband, Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder (fig. 1).  Sampson’s portrait was painted in Paris in Vanderlyn’s French-inspired-neoclassical style, and Electa’s was created in New York City in Waldo’s British-influenced style.7 Waldo’s somewhat more painterly brushstrokes and brighter palette contrast with Vanderlyn’s absence of visible brushwork and subdued colors. Despite these differences, the paintings relate nicely to one another. Both figures are seated and their bodies are turned toward one another, although they face the viewer. Electa’s right hand appears in the bottom right corner and Sampson’s hands are in the lower left, so that their hands are near one another when the portraits are hung together. Finally, Electa’s rose-colored dress complements her husband’s dark-green coat, and each of their costumes is decorated with velvet edging.

Waldo had at least three opportunities to paint Mrs. Wilder in New York: in 1817, 1823, or 1830 and after.8 The Wilders were married in 1817, an occasion which might have prompted a portrait sitting. However, a miniature painted of Mrs. Wilder in 1819 in Paris clearly represents her younger than she appears in Waldo’s portrait. The Wilders returned permanently from Paris in 1823 and spent time in New York City, providing a second possible time for the portrait, before settling at their estate in Massachusetts. Finally, they moved to Brooklyn in 1830, so Mrs. Wilder could also have posed for this portrait any time thereafter.

Mrs. Wilder’s hair and costume support the middle of these three dates for the portrait, about 1823. As the wife of a textile merchant in France, she probably was attuned to the latest fashions in Paris. Hairstyles with braids pinned up and tight curls framing the face were popular there in the early 1820s. High-waisted dresses with cape-like collars can also be found in Paris fashion plates of the same period. The shawl that is draped over Mrs. Wilder’s chair–which might have been a studio prop just as easily as the sitter’s possession–is of a type that became common in French fashion in the 1810s but remained popular in the 1820s.9

Further supporting the proposed date for the portrait is the fact that in 1824 Electa’s brother Joseph Barrell III (1800–1829) and his wife Mary Augusta Barrell (d. 1824) sat for their portraits to Waldo (both private collection). It is possible that Electa, Joseph, and Mary Barrell commissioned their portraits at about the same time. Another clue is offered by the frame of Electa’s portrait, which has a label that identifies its maker as Butler and Steen at 161 Fulton Street in New York. In 1816, the New York city directory lists the two men in partnership at a looking-glass store, but not at the address given on the label. John Steen is listed at a looking-glass store at the Fulton Street address from 1817 to 1827, but both John and Joseph Butler are at different addresses. John A. Butler is listed as a carver and gilder and Joseph T. Butler as a gilder.10 Further research is required to determine when Butler and Steen worked together at the Fulton Street address.

1. Barrell 1995, 134–35. I thank Jonathan Allen Shaw for sharing his genealogical research on Sampson Wilder (Shaw and Shaw 1994).

2. Dwight 1966, 22.

3. Stephen Salisbury II, New York, to Stephen Salisbury I and Elizabeth Salisbury, Worcester, Mass., July 28, 1823, Salisbury Family Papers, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, box 21, folder 2.

4. Massachusetts Spy or Worcester Advertiser, September 8, 1824.

5. Electa’s obituary is from an unidentified newspaper clipping found inside the family’s copy of Haines 1865. A photocopy of this obituary is in the object file, Worcester Art Museum.

6. For an image of Mrs. Griffin’s portrait, see New-York Historical Society 1974, I, 309, no. 797.

7. Strickler 1981–82a, 41.

8. For more information about Mrs. Wilder’s movements, see the biography section to this catalogue entry.

9. The analysis of Mrs. Wilder’s hair and dress is based on images supplied by Deirdre Donohue, librarian at the Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a letter to Laura K. Mills, February 12, 1999. We have also benefited from the knowledge of costume historians Lynne Bassett, Phyllis Mount, and Patricia Warner.

10. See, for example, Andrew Beers, Longworth’s New-York Almanac, for the Year of Our Lord 1816–17. New York: Published by D. Longworth, 1816, 145, 401; and [David Longworth], Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register, and City Directory, New York: Longworth, 1817, 136, 397.