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Portrait of Mrs. Thomas McKean (Sarah Armitage) and Her Daughter, Maria Louisa

Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741 - 1827. Mrs. Thomas McKean, American, 1756 - 1820. Maria Louisa McKean, American, 1785 - 1788

The portraits Charles Willson Peale painted for the home of Chief Justice Thomas McKean and his wife, Sarah Armitage McKean, were impressive, but whether Peale was recording the couple’s actual possessions or simply representative objects is unknown. Elements like the classical building in the chief justice’s portrait (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1968-74-2) and the boldly titled framed print in the painting of Mrs. McKean are clearly symbolic.

The portrait of Maria Louisa, the McKeans’ youngest daughter, is one of a number of charming paintings of children made by Peale in the 1780s. Seated securely on her mother’s lap, Maria is offered a plate of cherries and she, in turn, grasps a joined stem with twin fruits emblematic of natural connectedness, love, new life, and awakening. Mrs. McKean’s nurturing is the first step in her daughter’s education, but for outspoken early proponents of women’s education, including Dr. Benjamin Rush, it was crucial that, along with nurture, women like Mrs. McKean also “think justly upon the great subjects of liberty and government” so they could raise virtuous citizens.

The print seen beside Mrs. McKean specifically indicates her personal political and civic involvement in the American Revolution. Its title—Date Obolum Belisario—translates as “give a penny to Belisarius” and represents the sad fate of Belisarius, a once-victorious and loyal general of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who, as an innocent victim of political intrigues, was abandoned by his country and left a beggar. In Mrs. McKean’s portrait the image is symbolic of charitable acts toward brave and loyal soldiers who had fallen on hard times and represents her activities during 1780 and 1781 as a member of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. To compensate for the lack of public finances and the indifference of their fellow citizens, women of various social classes sewed clothing and raised money to purchase shoes and other necessities for the soldiers of the Continental army.

Object Details

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