Yesterday I was treated to a very special tour of the China Trade gallery and basement of the Peabody Essex Museum by a distinguished and generous curator, and while I was able to snap lots of photographs (exhibition items, packing and conservation materials, amazing things in storage, including a whole subterranean gallery of ship models, some in their original Peabody Museum cases) I came away thinking about just one item, a portrait of Captain William Story by the Chinese artist known in the west as “Spoilum” (Guan Zuolin). The Story portrait stuck with me for two reasons. I had just been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Custom-House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter, which disses Story as one of the venerable figures, sitting in old–fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, ill voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms–houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom–House officers. By all accounts this is an unfair characterization of Story, who was ending his storied maritime career with a post at the Custom House as Weigher and Gauger, but you can read about his long career here. The other reason I was so taken by Story’s portrait is far less weighty: once again I wondered, why is his hand in his vest? This is a portrait by a Chinese artist who probably knew nothing of that western convention—or perhaps Spoilum was such a popular artist precisely because he did.

Story PEM

Story Spoilum

Importing Splendor gallery wall at the Peabody Essex Museum with portrait of Spoilum’s Portrait of William Story, c. 1804; close-up from MIT’s “Envisioning Cultures” website.

Everyone seems to associate the hand-in-vest/waistcoat pose with Napoleon but many such portraits predate those of the little emperor. Why put the hand in this position in an expression of apparent disablement? Or is it cloaked power? Then there are the rather spurious theories of Masonic hidden hands or attempts by the artists to lessen the challenge of rendering hands by painting just one. Apparently it was simply a dictate of genteel behavior, handed down from the ages of Greece and Rome (which explains the pose’s eighteenth-century origins, in that most neo-classical of centuries). If it was a question of gentility, you can see how the pose would appeal to merchants and sea captains, self-made men who perhaps wanted to appeal a bit more polished for posterity.


Young Mariner


Spoilum Cranstoun

Portrait of a Western Merchant

American Sea Captain Dutch School

Ships Model PEM

Pre-Napoleon in-vested sea captains (+ General Washington): Joseph Blackburn, Portrait of Captain John Pigott, c. 1752, LACMA; John Durand, Portrait of Young Mariner, ca. 1768–1772, collection of John and Judith Herdeg; Charles Willson Peale, General George Washington, 1776, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Chinese-export Reverse Painted Mirror of Captain John Cranstoun, c. 1785, Bonhams; Spoilum, Portrait of Western Merchant, c. 1785, “Envisioning Cultures at MIT; Portrait of an American Ship Captain (Purported to be Captain John Thompson of Philadelphia who engaged in the China trade), c. 1785, Sotheby’s + in the basement of the Peabody Essex: what a treat!

12 responses to “In-Vested

  • bradaustin

    Another interesting essay, Donna. FWIW, earlier this week I was listening to a lecture on the deaf artist John Brewster, and the speaker suggested that Brewster charged more if he had to paint the hands, because they were so difficult/time-consuming. At one point the speaker pointed out that one portrait subject had his thumb sticking out of his vest and speculated that he had enough cash to pay for a thumb, but not a full hand.

    I doubt an artist of the caliber of Spoilum had problems painting hands, but maybe there was a time/expense concern.

    (See Paul D’Ambrosio’s lecture on Brewster here: )

    • daseger

      I kept reading that but all the art historians didn’t seem to give that theory much credit! It would be interesting to compare Brewster + Ropes.

  • helenbreen01

    Hi Donna, yet another great piece. What a wonderful experience to have a private tour of PEM. I did follow your thread on Captain Story’s early life. Indeed, he earned a bit of leisure.

    Hawthorne’s introduction to the SCARLET LETTER, “the Custom House,” is one of my favorite pieces of literature. I would advise your readers to re-visit it. Here is one of my favorite passages:

    “His reminiscences of good cheer, however ancient the date of the actual banquet, seemed to bring the savor of pig or turkey under one’s very nostrils. There were flavors on his palate, that had lingered there not less than sixty or seventy years, and were still apparently as fresh as that of the mutton-chop which he had just devoured for his breakfast. I have heard him smack his lips over dinners, every guest at which, except himself, had long been food for worms…”

  • Kim Mimnaugh

    The hand in the vest continued into 19th century photographic portraiture. Good to know that it is a pose for men of stature/status.

  • Carol J. Perry

    My husband and I spoke just recently about the wonderful ship models we remembered from childhood trips to the old museum. The new museum is lovely and state of the art and all, but there was something about the old one,,the hodge podge of wonderful stuff jammed into the too-small space that was so satisfying and such fun on a rainy day!

    • daseger

      I know! I never really saw that, but I have seen photographs—I asked the curator whether they could put up and “old-fashioned” exhibition with all the cases–I think people would really appreciate the changing styles of interpretation. No hodge podge, now, that’s for sure!

  • Priscilla Tennant Herrington

    I, too, remember as a very little girl being taken to the Essex Institute with cases and cases of ship models, and also a whole lot of scrimshaw. My grandfather was a sea captain and I remember thinking he must have carved ivory – perhaps some of his scrimshaw was right there in front of me! However when he came home and I asked him, I found that the only carved ivory he actually owned was from India, and he had never carved a walrus tusk or a whale’s tooth. Not only that, although he had gone to sea in his teens, he had never danced a hornpipe nor sung a sea chanty. So much for my public school education! Still, I went back to the Essex Institute more than once, and was fascinated at the work that must have gone into those ship models.

    • daseger

      In the basement room with all the ship models, there was actually a cabinet with drawers full of parts to fix them! And the cabinet was a work of art too.

  • helenbreen01

    Re: the “hand question.” I read recently A REVOLUTION IN COLOR, The World of John Singleton Copley by Jane Kamensky – quite good. She addresses the “problem” of rendering hands in Copley’s portraits. Not being an artist, I never gave it any thought. But evidently, it is a challenge.

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