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Object Details

Maker
Samuel Shelley (British, 1756-1808)
Date
ca. 1796
Geography
United Kingdom: England
Culture
British
Medium
watercolor on ivory; in its gilded copper case with burnished bezel
Dimensions
Overall: 1 7/8 in x 1 1/2 in; 4.7625 cm x 3.81 cm
Provenance
John Quincy Adams (1767-1848); to his mother, Abigail Adams (d. 1818); to his son, John Adams (d. 1834); to Mary Catherine Hellen Adams (d. 1870), his widow; to her granddaughter, Mary Adams Johnson (later Mrs. Charles Andrews Doolittle), 1870; to her son, Ebenezer Brown Sherman Doolittle; to his daughter, Lois Doolittle (Mrs. Carpenter Inches); to Max Webber, Inc., Middleton, Massachusetts; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
Inscriptions
Signed with initials at the sitter's left shoulder, "SS."
Credit Line
Funds donated by Mrs. Charles S. Payson
Collection
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number
RR-1967.0071

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Object Essay

Sent from The Hague to London in connection with Jay’s Treaty in November 1795, John Quincy Adams often found himself at the home of Joshua Johnson, a prosperous former commercial agent of Maryland who was American Consul at London. Johnson and his English wife, Catherine Nuth, had seven daughters and a son. The Johnson household was elegant and sociable, and Adams’s acquaintance with twenty-year old Louisa Catherine Johnson (1775–1852) developed rapidly into affection. Before he returned to the Netherlands in the spring of 1796, they were engaged. Abigail Adams promptly asked her son to send a miniature of his fiancée to complement his portrait by Parker (see Acc. No.67.70), which she had finally received at the end of the preceding November.1 Oliver, 31.   

This portrait is presumed to be by the popular miniaturist Samuel Shelley, because of the initials and the style. Like other female sitters to Shelley, Louisa is treated as a fashion plate. Shelley had developed a technique of loading his watercolors with gum arabic, by which means “he simulated the richness and depth of oil paints without completely forfeiting the transparency of watercolor.”2 Patrick J. Noon, in Murdoch, 194. Although characterization is scant, he avoids coyness and conveys an effect of youthful innocence despite his sitter’s ostentatious accessories.

William Kloss

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.