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Portraits of Our Past

This unknown woman of the Van Mater family was the lovely subject of this portrait by Harvey Jenkins, a prolific portrait artist in Monmouth County during the 19th century. Mr. Jenkins paints the details of her fine clothing and delicate features exquisitely while also giving us a mysterious "Mona Lisa" like smile and a background of rocks and a waterfall, which do not reflect any location in Monmouth County or New Jersey that we can think of.

So what? This painting is so two centuries ago! Why are portraits such as this one still important? Why do we bother with these portraits today in the age of cell phones and Instagram? To us, these portraits seem incredibly serious and formal.

Let's put these paintings into context. These portraits were done at a time when a person only had a single portrait done once in his or her lifetime. And you only really had a portrait made if you were wealthy. To us now, this seems absurd and ridiculous in a time when we can take several photographs a second and share them around the world with friends instantly.

Where can you see these portraits? They are hanging at one of our historic houses in Middletown. Built in 1853, for Edward Taylor and his wife, Mary Holmes Taylor II, a wealthy Monmouth County family, the mansion is situated along Kings Highway. They called their property Orchard Home, but today it's called the Taylor-Butler House. It is rented out at times for weddings, special occasions, or birthday parties, and once you stop by this summer, you can see why. It's a grand Italianate style home set back up on the hill, which was once the orchard of the Taylor family. With the sweeping staircase, very tall ceilings, and large hall welcoming you into the house, your inner Scarlet O'Hara will come out. These features make it a perfect place to showcase the Monmouth County Historical Association's 19th century portrait collection displaying many local families.

Back to our original question - why are they important now? They are important because they show us details about the time period they lived in, such as clothing fashions and hair styles. This portrait is of David Wycoff Hendrickson, painted in 1853, the same year as the Taylor-Butler House was built. It is not hard to imagine men looking like him walking around the Taylor-Butler House during dinner parties!

Portraits such as this were painted when a person was a young child - younger than 10 - again perhaps when they were a young adult and maybe about to get married or just were married. Why these life points? Living to the age of 10 was very uncertain at that time. This was before antibiotics. Children died from common childhood illnesses such as ear infections. Another age that seems to be a milestone young adulthood considered the late teens to early 20s. of 17 to 23 or so. Around this age, most people started to think about marriage, so perhaps the portrait was a wedding gift to the young couple.

If they were lucky and wealthy enough, a portrait in advanced years might have been painted. Take this portrait for example.

Robust Grandmother Van Mater with her grandson Charles Stillwell were painted in 1849, three years before she passed away in 1852. This is the only painting that we know of by Harvey Jenkins which contains two sitters. By the looks of it, he probably didn't quite know how to paint children's faces. It is another portrait that shows very fine details of the lace on her cap lappets, the folds of her dress bodice, and the pattern on the curtains behind them. Charles's shoes have pearl buttons! These are all very typical fashions of the late 1840s to early 1850s.

Do you think the hairstyles of the 1980s or 1990s was strange? How about this man's hair style?

Now onto our video! In the video, you will get glimpses of the lovely Taylor-Butler House and why you should visit the house. But, as an exercise, tell me why portraits of loved ones are still so important today - whether they are painted or taken on a cell phone.

See you soon!

-- Pati

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