Monday, December 19, 2011

Winifred Scawen Blunt's Gown

When I visited the Albany Institute on Friday to meet the curator, under whom I will be working as an intern, I went up and walked around the galleries - I think my main objective was a second look at the permanent exhibitions Sense of Place: 18th and 19th Century Paintings and Sculpture and Traders and Culture: Colonial Albany and the Formation of American Identity, which offer many paintings of people in clothing, which is my favorite aspect of paintings.  (Mantua fans will be interested in the portrait of Ariaantje Coeymans Verplanck attr. to Nehemiah Partridge.)  While I walked, my eye was caught by a double portrait of Samuel Blunt, Esquire of Horsham, and Winifred Scawen Blunt, by Johann Zoffany.

(I regret immensely that I can't find a picture of this painting anywhere, and I beg that you believe my description.)

What attracted my attention was the clothing of the Blunts: he is dressed in what looks like a military uniform, with a bright red coat and pale breeches, and she is wearing a pink taffeta gown, trimmed with ruffles and lots of silk roses.  I checked the label to see that it was dated to ca. 1769, and at first I agreed - the pink and the roses combine to give a somewhat Rococo sensibility to the outfit.  Then I looked closer.

The first part of the outfit that struck me as odd was the neckline of the gown.  It seemed to have a lot of extra fabric ... more like a collar than the usual anglaise neckline.  This led me to take a closer look at the rest of the gown, and I noticed:

- a ruched gauze cuff over the end of the sleeve
- the curve of the front corner of the skirt's hem
- a large gauze ruffle over that hem
- an unfitted waistline
- the bodice fronts meeting at the neckline and falling away at angles
- a stomacher in the same fabric with straight trim running down the center

All of these add up to a gown much like a plate in the MFA of a sultane, but with a levite collar and sleeves similar to those seen in many polonaises (eg).  The sultane plate is dated to 1782, and the earliest levite plate is from 1779.  As Hallie Larkin and The Hive have documented, the emergence of the "flying back" style of gown front is 1775-1776, which makes it seem likely that this painting is actually a little bit newer than it's been dated.

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