Two images which I first saw long ago established an everlasting, though certainly ideal, image of New England Puritans in my mind, and I am certain that I am not the only one for which this is true: these are illustrations by the nineteenth-century Anglo-American artist George Henry Boughton (1833-1905) of Pilgrims walking to church in the winter–steadfast souls in a harsh landscape. The first painting is the well-known and widely-disseminated Pilgrims Going to Church (1867) and the second is an engraving of two particular Pilgrims, John and Priscilla Alden, presumably also on their way to services in the snow, she with bible in hand and he with gun. Both paintings emphasize the vulnerability of the Puritans by presenting them in a barren seasonal landscape, yet clearly they are armed with both their faith and their relationships, as well as their muskets.
George Henry Boughton, Early Puritans of New England Going to Church (1867), Collection of the New-York Historical Society; Puritan couple on their way to Sunday worship, engraved by Thomas Gold Appleton (1885).
Boughton became one of the most influential crafters of the Puritan image through both his own paintings (The New York Times predicted that his iconic 1871 painting The Return of the Mayflower would “live as long as the memory of the Mayflower itself lasts”) and reproductions thereof, many commissioned by the entrepreneurial publisher Alfred S. Burbank of Plymouth, who owned and operated his “Pilgrim Bookshop” from 1872 from 1932. Boughton’s Puritans appeared on trade and post cards, diverse souvenirs, and as individual prints for decades. Below is his favorite Priscilla Alden, even more vulnerable in the absence of John, in both the original 1879 painting and a turn-of-the-century trade card.
Boughton’s Puritan paintings reveal a reverence for the origins of the country of his childhood, but his work and life should be viewed in an Atlantic context: he was born in Britain and lived in his native country for most of his adulthood. He traveled widely on the Continent, studied in France, and was clearly just as influenced by western European artists and scenes as American history. But I think his American paintings also influenced his life’s work: looking over his cumulative oeuvre, I noticed a penchant for depicting Priscilla-like women in winter, often alone, seemingly and simultaneously both vulnerable and strong in their purposes and thoughtful in their gazes. Even when one of Boughton’s winter women is dressed in the more elaborate attire of his own era (as in The Lady of the Snows below) she still bears traces of the Puritan Priscilla.
George Henry Boughton, Girl with a Muff, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC); A Puritan Maiden (1875), Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute; Gathering Firewood in the Winter, Christies; Watercolor illustration to ‘Love in Winter’, Christies; The Lady of the Snows (1896), Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.