Watercolor on ivory in a gold and split pearl frame
Framed: 9 x 7.3 cm (3 9/16 x 2 7/8 in.); Sight: 8 x 6.1 cm (3 1/8 x 2 3/8 in.)
The Edward B. Greene Collection 1941.552
Portraits of mothers with their children were much more common in the 1700s and 1800s in Britain than were portraits of fathers with their children.
This sensitive portrait of Catherine Clemens and her son, John Marcus, was painted around 1800 and exemplifies the prettiness for which Cosway was so well known. The artist’s trademark turquoise blue sky is reflected in the boy’s brilliant blue eyes and the bow on the frock that slips informally off his shoulder. This miniature also showcases Cosway’s mature technique of delicate stipplework throughout the faces, contrasted with looser brushstrokes for the hair and garments. Both John Marcus and his mother are swathed in white ruffled fabric, against which the paleness of their skin seems even more pronounced. Like his contemporaries, Cosway used the bare ivory ground to enhance the creaminess of flesh tones. John Marcus wears a coral necklace, frequently given to children during this period as a talisman believed to ward off illness. His innocent, childish gesture of reaching down his mother’s dress for her breast is awkward considering his disproportionately large size. The fact that he is still young enough to wear a gown rather than breeches suggests that he is under four years of age, and yet his head and lips are larger than his mother’s. During the final decades of the eighteenth century, aristocratic women as prominent as the Duchess of Devonshire were electing to breastfeed their children rather than send them to wet nurses, and this may be a delicate reference to Catherine Clemens’s philosophy of “natural” parenting.
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