WORCESTER — The woman so breezily depicted here married a Boston lawyer at Trinity Church in 1781.
Big mistake. The lawyer, Perez Morton, who went on to become attorney general of Massachusetts, soon embarked on an affair with her sister, Frances. Fanny, as Frances was known, gave birth to his daughter before committing suicide after their affair became public in 1788.
Somehow, the married Mortons managed to effect a reconciliation. They had five children, three of whom died. Mrs. Morton, born Sarah Wentworth Apthorp, had always loved writing poetry, but it was only after the scandal of 1788 that she began to publish her work under the pseudonym Philenia. With works such as “The African Chief,” an anti-slavery poem, she came to enjoy great popularity and was dubbed “the American Sappho” by Robert Treat Paine Jr.
She got to know Gilbert Stuart sometime after his return from 18 years as a fashionable, if constantly debt-ridden, portraitist in London. His chief aim in returning had been to paint George Washington, and after several years he succeeded in doing just that. The result — unfinished and on display in the Museum of Fine Arts — became a prototype for the nearly 100 copies he made in subsequent years, and for the one-dollar bill.
A heavy drinker often embroiled in controversy, Stuart may have had cause to feel a comradely sort of sympathy with Mrs. Morton, whose lively spirit he brilliantly evoked in this portrait on display in the Worcester Art Museum. He actually painted two formal portraits of her; this unfinished work, probably painted around 1802, was discovered in his studio after his death.
At some point Stuart appears to have decided to change the position of Mrs. Morton’s arms, so that they now seem to be lifting her veil. The immediacy and freshness of the effect only compound the sense of her vital intelligence.
Stuart was a great showman, a terrifically talented painter, but an unreliable sort of fellow. He took on too much and often had trouble finishing things. “There is no knowing how to take hold of this man,” complained Abigail Adams, “nor by what means to prevail upon him to fulfill his engagements.”
It may be unfinished, but the way he painted Mrs. Morton here — the style so uncannily suggestive of the dashing approach of painters like Sargent and Zorn more than 100 years later — strikes me as an engagement satisfyingly fulfilled.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.