Two portraits of young Salem women of the mid-eighteenth century, both named Mary and newly-wed, painted by John Singleton Copley wearing the same dress! Whether you’re delving into the reform-minded Salem women of the nineteenth century or the merchant princesses of a century earlier, you quickly form the impression that both groups lived in small worlds. Mary Turner Sargent (1743-1813) and Mary Toppan Pickman (1744-1817) were born and married into money, and their portraits reflect their wealth and status: their shared dress shimmers and glows in Copley fashion, and handcrafted Georgian detail creates a solid background for their portrayals.
Mrs. Daniel Sargent (Mary Turner), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; and Mrs. Benjamin Pickman (Mary Toppan), Yale University Art Gallery + plus a crop of the serpentine trim on their dress.
I love John Singleton Copley’s American portraits: they seem far more authentic, engaging, and artful than the English paintings from his later career. These women lived in a world he knew well, and into which he would eventually marry. Unlike our two Salem Marys, he was not born into wealth and privilege, but his marriage to Susanna Farnham Clarke, the daughter of the prominent Boston merchant Richard Clarke (who lost a valuable cargo to the Boston Tea Party) as well as his talent and productivity enabled him to rise quite high in pre-revolutionary society. He painted famous patriots and loyalists alike, but he was firmly in the latter camp, and thus he decamped to England in 1774. Mary Turner Sargent married into a family of Gloucester patriots; Mary Toppan Pickman’s husband Benjamin was a Loyalist exile—I’m wondering if he ran into Copley in London, as that was another small world.
John Singleton Copley, The Copley Family, 1776-77, National Gallery + a crop of Susanna’s blue dress.
There are two other Copley portraits of Salem women that I know of: that of Lydia Lynde Walter (1741-98), a contemporary of the two Marys, and Abigail Pickman Eppes Gardiner (1733-1980), Mary Pickman’s sister-in-law! One imagines lots of chatter among these women about their portraits—and comparisons. Were the two Marys jealous of Abigail, who is clad in indulgent drapery in more individualistic fashion? Abigail had to go with a more classical look, perhaps, so not to look too provincial when she departed for England and Loyalist Land. Lydia Lynde Walter lived with her husband William, the rector of Trinity Church, until 1776 and then they fled to Nova Scotia, a Loyalist destination for those who wanted to remain in North America, where they sat out the Revolution and remained until 1791.
Lydia Lynde Walter,Virginia Museum of History and Culture; Abigail Pickman Eppes Gardiner, Brooklyn Museum.
Of all these women, only Mary Toppan Pickman remained in Salem throughout her life. Mary Turner Sargent was the great-granddaughter of the John Turner who built the house which would eventually become known as the House of the Seven Gables, the granddaughter of the John Turner who would replenish the family fortune, and the daughter of the John Turner who lost it all—so I guess it’s a good thing that she resided in her husband’s native city of Gloucester, somewhat removed from the scene of her family’s failing fortunes. Mary Pickman remained in Salem even as her husband left for London, managing those properties that were not confiscated and raising their four young children (+ taking care of elderly parents). She seems to have done a a more than capable job, as tributes to her capabilities and pleasant nature are numerous. She and her husband exchanged letters during the course of the Revolution, but of course only ONE of hers survives compared with many of his. Fortunately it is revealing. In June of 1783, she wrote:
I am happy my dear Mr. Pickman that I have once more heard the glad tidings of peace, but my happiness will not be complete until till you return. The satisfaction you received from my letter could not be greater than I felt as seeing yours of the 20th February. I am glad you are disposed to return to America and have no doubt that in a short time every obstacle will in a short time be removed—our fortune is not so much depreciated perhaps as you imagine. We have a very good one left enough to answer any purpose. It has not been in my power to purchase any bills lately but will if possible send you sufficient to pay all demands before you leave England….. (George Francis Dow, ed., The diary and letters of Benjamin Pickman (1740–1819) of Salem, Massachusetts).
He had been gone for TEN years, leaving her with all of their family responsibilities and instead of writing the war is over, come back immediately, I’m exhausted she writes of her incomplete happiness in his absence and promises to send money to settle his debts before his departure. By all accounts the Pickmans had a very happy marriage, strong enough to withstand this separation: they had two more children in the years following his return.
Looking at the portraits of the blue-dressed Marys and Lydia Lynde, painted in 1763-64, it seems impossible to imagine how much their lives will change with the Revolution; Abigail, posing in the 1770s, looks a bit more wary. Copley captured a waning colonial world, and then left it.
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