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Mary Willing Byrd, Portrait, circa 1773

Context

This document shows a portrait of Mary Willing Byrd painted in the early 1770’s by artist Matthew Pratt. After placing three advertisements in the Virginia Gazette, William Byrd hired Pratt to paint a portrait of his second wife Mary Willing Byrd.

In 1777 when William Byrd died, he left Byrd debt-ridden and faced the difficult task of satisfying his creditors while preserving an inheritance for her ten children. Byrd attempted to remain neutral during the American Revolution and thereby preserve her property for her children so she could remain with the wealth she was accustomed too. Both British and patriot forces raided Westover, the Byrd family plantation during the war. After trying to negotiate with the British for a return of her property, Patriots charged her with trading with the enemy. She eloquently defended herself and charges were dropped. 

Today two portraits of Mary Willing Byrd survive, one located at the Library of Virginia and one is located at the Virginia Historical Society.

Citation: Mary Willing Byrd, oil painting. Pratt, Matthew, Mary Willing Byrd (Mrs. William Byrd III) Oil painting on canvas, Original. Virginia State Artwork Collection: acquired 1920, Library of Virginia. 

Standards

History: VUS.4, USI.1
Art: 4.1, 5.1

Suggested Questions

Analyze: What can Mary Byrd's story tell us about the position the war left some women in?

Artistic Exploration: Draw a portrait of Mary Willing Byrd that you think represents her story. Feel free to use symbols in your portrait.

In Their Shoes: If you were Mary Byrd, how would you try to preserve your property? Would you choose a side in the war? What are the advantages and disadvantages of joining each side? Would you stay neutral? What are potential flaws with that position?

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