Painting Abigail and Apple Blossoms

Two lesser-known (at least to me!) Salem artists were born this week:  Benjamin Blyth (or Blythe, 1746-1811) and Fidelia Bridges (1835-1923).  Blyth was a colonial portrait pastellist, whose subjects included Abigail and John Adams in the early years of their marriage,while Bridges was a watercolorist and illustrator whose late nineteenth-century nature scenes expressed both the realism and the romanticism of her era. 

Even before Blyth placed an advertisement in The Essex Gazette begging “leave to inform the Public, that he has opened a Room for the Performance of Limning in Crayons at the House occupied by his Father in the great Street leading towards Marblehead, where specimens of his Performance may be seen” in October of 1769, he had received commissions from notable persons in the Salem and Boston areas, including the Adamses.  Apparently Abigail Adams’ sister lived in Salem, and the young married couple sat for Blyth during a visit with her in 1766. 

Abigail Adams and John Adams, Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The very first portrait of a future president (and present historical rock star) painted right here in Salem!  According to Neil Jeffares’ Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, Blyth produced over two dozen pastel portraits during his career, but attribution is difficult because he seldom signed his work.  Two other prominent people who were painted by Blyth (perhaps not as prominent as the Adamses but certainly very important Salem people) were Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke (1728-1829), physician, scientist, and early adopter of the controversial smallpox vaccination method (he inoculated himself during the epidemic of 1777) and architect-woodcarver Samuel McIntire.  Holyoke’s image was captured by several artists more famous than Blyth, including John Singleton Copley, but the image below remained in the family until its sale at auction in 2007 for $35,960.

 Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1777 (with a black and gilt frame by Samuel Blyth), Northeast Auctions image, 2007.

The sole image we have of Samuel McIntire is Blyth’s, painted at some point in the 1780s and in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.

While the date most commonly given for McIntire’s portrait is 1786, that would have been four years after Blyth left Salem for Richmond, Virgina, where he married a rich widow and continued his pastel portraiture. The last years of his non-Salem life seem somewhat shrouded in mystery.

And now for something (someone) completely different.  Fidelia Bridges was born in a very different Salem more than a generation after Blyth left, and she lived well into the twentieth century. Bridges was also a far better-trained artist than Blyth, despite her gender and the difficult circumstances of her early life. Her parents died in quick succession (her ship captain father in China, her mother at home in Salem three months later) leaving her orphaned by the age of 15. After a brief bout on their own, she and her siblings were taken in by the wealthy Browne family of Brooklyn,(not sure what the connection between the Bridges and the Brownes is:  cousins, friends of friends?) where Fidelia seems to have functioned as an unpaid combination mother’s helper/governess but was also exposed to the artistic environment of  New York.  By 1860 she was in Philadelphia, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with the pre-Raphaelite artist William Trost Richards.  The wealthy and well-connected Richards, though only a year older than Fidelia, became her lifelong mentor. 

Fidelia Bridges in 1864, Lay Collection, Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Fidelia Bridges’ works reveal small sections of nature, very closely-focused, detailed, and finely-drawn:  the essence of birds and/or plants, with nothing added.  She first worked in several mediums but became increasingly focused on watercolors, which apparently had increased in artistic stature at this time, and she was the first (and only, for a long while) female member of the American Watercolor Society.  Below are two watercolors from the 1870s: Bird’s Next in Cattails (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Apple Blossoms (Babcock Galleries).

Though Bridges was well-connected and well-exhibited, she never married and had to support herself, which she could not do solely with the proceeds from the sale of her individual paintings.  Consequently she became an illustrator, an increasingly respectable (and remunerative) profession for artistic ladies in the later nineteenth century.  From the 1870s on, Bridges worked continuously for the printer-publisher Louis Prang & Company of Boston, providing illustrations for chromolithographic books, calendars, and greeting cards.  One of Prang’s most artistic (and expensive) offerings was a series of twelve color prints illustrated by Bridges in 1876:  Twelve Months.  Below is the month of May, from the collection of the Boston Public Library.

Though born in Salem, Fidelia Bridges is more associated with the western Connecticut town of Canaan, where her Prang earnings enabled her to purchase a small rural estate with a rather wild old-fashioned garden, providing her with subject material for the rest of her life.


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