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Portrait of Evelyn Byrd (1707-1737)

1725-1726 (probably)
Origin: England, London
Unframed: 50 3/16 x 40 3/8in. (127.5 x 102.6cm) and Framed: 57 1/16 x 47 1/8 x 2 1/4in.
Oil on canvas
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1941-76,A&B
A three-quarter length portrait of a young woman, seated, nearly full-face, her head turned slightly towards the viewer's left. She has brown eyes. Her brown hair is parted in the middle and turned back from her face, with a nosegay of red and blue flowers tucked into the proper left side and one long curl falling over her proper right shoulder. Her eyes are slightly almond shaped and slant upwards at the outer corners. She has a rosy complextion. She wears a low-cut satin dress with a fitted bodice slit down the front, showing her white, ruffled, muslin shift beneath. White ruffles protrude from under the three-quarter length sleeves of her dress, which is a pale blue. In her lap, she holds a flat-crowned, flat-brimmed chip straw hat trimmed with a wreath of red and yellow flowers and white ribbon. She also holds across her lap a long staff, perhaps a shepherd's crook. Behind her is a lush landscape including trees and a body of water. A red bird, perhaps a cardinal, perches on a branch at upper left in the composition. The sky is depicted as though at sunset or sunrise.
The 3 3/4-inch frame is probably not original. The rabbet is routed out; this may have been done to accommodate the post-conservation dimensions of the canvas, which was given aluminum lip-over molding in its treatment. However, marked lightening of the pigments over all but the outer edges of the canvas (believed to be the result of fading) suggests that the picture was formerly, for an extended period of time, in a different frame, one that covered slightly more of the canvas. The present black-painted bolection molding incorporates gilded (now over-painted) leaf-and-dart carving along both the sight and outer edges.
Label:Evelyn Byrd was the daughter of Col. William Byrd II (1674-1744) and his first wife, Lucy Parke Byrd (1688-1716), of Westover plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. The girl was educated in England, and this portrait was painted there at some point prior to her return to Virginia in 1726. She died at age thirty unmarried, provoking lingering but unverifiable tales of star-crossed love affairs. Colonial Williamsburg's likeness of the young woman hung at Westover---along with those of dignitaries, friends of her father's, and other family members---until the early nineteenth century. It remained in the possession of family descendants until 1941, when Colonial Williamsburg acquired it from a great-great-great-niece of the subject.

Supporting the picture's fashionable idyllic theme, the subject holds a chip straw hat and a long staff, the latter probably representing a shepherd's crook. Several contemporaneous English portraits of women are similarly composed and include shepherds' crooks in their subjects' laps or hands. In such contexts, the implements reference the simplicity, naturalness, and romance of rustic life as perceived---however, unrealistically---by the wealthy. Byrd's picture includes a very specific reference to both her name and the New World, however: at upper left in the composition, a bright red bird perches on a branch, presumably a Northern Cardinal, which is indigenous to North America.

Provenance:From William Byrd II (1674-1744) to his son, William Byrd III (1728-1777); to his wife, Mrs. William Byrd III (Mary Willing)(1740-1814); to her daughter, Mrs. Benjamin Harrison (Evelyn Taylor Byrd)(1766-1817); to her son, George Evelyn Harrison (1797-1839); to his son, George Evelyn Harrison, Jr. (1837-1880); to his daughter, Mrs. Stephen Decatur Mayo (Isabella Ritchie Harrison)(1873-1962), who was CWF's source.