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Portrait of George Purdie

1767
Origin: America, Virginia, probably Smithfield or Williamsburg
Overall: 81.3 x 66cm (32 x 26in.) Framed: 37 1/2 x 32 1/2in.
Oil on canvas
Gift of Doris Gwaltney
Acc. No. 2016-89,A
A half-length portrait of a middle aged man turned slightly towards the viewer's left. the sitter's blue eyes look slightly over his shoulder towards the viewer, revealing brown hair that is cropped close around his forehead but transitions into loose curls behind the ears. The man is attired in a red coat and waistcoat with buttons covered in the same textile. Small areas of his ruffled white shirt are visible at the neckline and cuffs. His proper right arm crosses his torso and presents a partially opened bill of exchange, while his left hand is interted under his waistcoat. The bill of exchange is partially legible, reading: "Virginia Sept. 16th 1767, exchange for £500...At ten days sight of this my first Bill of Exchange....my second and third (of the same)..."
Label:Scottish immigrant George Purdie found success through his mercantile relationships with London firms, but these same associations became a liability with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. His work as the colonial representative for Andrew, Archibald, and Buchanan, as well as his involvement with the slave and tobacco trades, tied his financial stability to access to the global economy. Purdie did join with members of the House of Burgesses and other Virginia merchants as signers of the 1770 non-importation agreement, an arrangement created in response to increased taxation. This was in direct conflict with his business needs.

Purdie’s reason for signing the initial agreement is unclear, but by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he attracted the attention of the community for behavior perceived as pro-monarchy. On July 25, 1775, George Purdie was summoned before the Committee of Safety for Isle of Wight County on charges of price gouging and loyalist sentiments. He was sufficiently intimidated by his community to send a letter requesting the Committee’s protection from tarring and feathering.

Despite this conflict, Purdie served the Continental Army as a merchant throughout the war. He was called on to coordinate the repairs to the Isle of Wight courthouse, which had been damaged in the war, and through his service as justice of the peace, bore witness to numerous legal agreements, wills, probate inventories and the like. George Purdie’s standing in the colonies fluctuated over his life: from immigrant to established merchant, from hesitant protester to suspected loyalist to his later life as a civil servant and prominent citizen of Smithfield.

Given the arc of artist John Durand’s career, from his immigration to the colonies around 1766-1767, to his first known Virginia portrait (1768) to the post 1782 void, the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. George Purdie fall roughly in the middle, during his active travels between Virginia and Connecticut. Durand was familiar with British precedents for composition and poses, and the Purdie portraits display these elements. From the letter in Mr. Purdie's carefully positioned hand to the pearls and flowers ornamenting Mrs. Purdie's ensemble, Durand followed the established format to express the genteel refinement and success of his sitters.
Provenance:The will of Mary Robinson Purdie includes “two family portraits,” which could refer to the Durand paintings. After her death, they passed to her eldest son, John Hyndman Purdie (1770-1845), to his son John Robinson Purdie (1809-1898), to his son Thomas Smith Purdie (1853-1923), to his son Colonel Kenneth Sinclair Purdie (1892-1983). At this time, Doris Horne Gwaltney, a descendant of John Hyndman Purdie’s brother, Thomas, assumed ownership. Doris Gwaltney and her husband William Atwill Gwaltney donated the portraits to Colonial Williamsburg in March 2016 along with a number of other Purdie family objects.

Doris Gwaltney is a direct descendent of George and Mary Purdie through their son Thomas. At the time of Mary's death, the portraits passed to her eldest son John and descended through John's line until 1983 when the portraits passed to Doris. Although the portraits did not descend in the same family line until CW acquired them they do come to us by direct descend from the sitters.