Mary Willing Byrd, oil painting
This portrait of Mary Willing Byrd (1740–1814) was painted by Matthew Pratt probably in 1773. A portraitist from Philadelphia, Pratt was born on September 23, 1734. He apprenticed as a painter under his uncle before opening a portrait studio in 1758. In 1764 Pratt traveled to England where he studied under the expatriate artist Benjamin West. Pratt had been back in the colonies for about five years when he visited Williamsburg in the spring of 1773. He took out three advertisements in the Virginia Gazette announcing paintings for sale and offering his services at portrait painting. William Byrd (1728–1777), later known as William Byrd III, probably hired Pratt to paint his second wife during this time. Pratt returned to Philadelphia and when his income suffered with the beginning of the American Revolution, he opened a drawing school and began painting shop signs in addition to portrait painting. Matthew Pratt died on January 9, 1805.
This painting is typical of Pratt's style, influenced by fashionable eighteenth-century European portraitists. Byrd is shown in a three-quarter view with a spare background. Her wealth is apparent in the richness of her garments and the pearls in her hair. The portrait itself is an obvious indication of the Byrds' wealth, since, before the availability of affordable photography in the twentieth century, usually only members of the upper class of society could afford having their likenesses recorded.
Byrd was born in 1740, probably in Philadelphia. She moved to Virginia with her husband in 1762 and was a wealthy widow during most of the American Revolution. In January 1781, British troops under Benedict Arnold took over and occupied her home, Westover. After the British left Westover, taking with them slaves, horses, and two ferryboats, Byrd attempted to regain some of her property under an American flag of truce. This action embroiled her in a controversy, as some Americans believed her to be trading with the enemy. On February 21, 1781, a company of American infantry raided Westover, seizing her papers.
Two days later Byrd wrote a letter to Governor Thomas Jefferson defending her loyalty: "I wish well to all mankind, to America in particular. What am I but an American? All my friends and connexions are in America; my whole property is here—could I wish ill to everything I have an interest in?"* She was brought up on charges but her case never went to trial. She died at the Westover estate in March 1814.
Today two portraits of the widow Byrd survive. This one—which may have hung at Westover, the Byrd family estate in Charles County, and have been bequeathed by Byrd to her daughter Maria H. Byrd Page—was given to the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) in 1920 by a descendant of Byrd. The other portrait, painted by John Wollaston a few years before her marriage to William Byrd in 1761, is now at the Virginia Historical Society.
1. What is Mary Willing Byrd wearing? How would you describe her to someone who had not seen the painting?
2. What do you think Mary Willing Byrd was thinking about when she sat for this portrait?
3. What can you tell from her portrait about who Mary Willing Byrd was?
Compare the portrait of Mary Willing Byrd to the portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee. What are some specific differences in their portrayals? What do these differences say about the expectations for men and women in that time? Notice the fashions and hairstyles, how do they compare to present-day styles?
*Quotation from a lost letter recorded in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Vol. 5, page 691.
Kneebone, John T., et al., eds. Dictionary of Virginia Biography. 3 vols. to date. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001, 2:457–458.
Batson, Barbara C., and Tracy L. Kamerer. A Capital Collection: Virginia's Artistic Inheritance. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2005, 98–100.