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.
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.
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!