September 5, 2016

Mrs. Adams


      Louisa sat for two different portraits around this time. In each, she seems almost a different woman. Charles Bird King painted her on a large canvas, in rich and saturated colors, the figure almost life-size. Her expression is serene and clear, her confident. She has some flesh, as a woman was supposed to, and she is dressed ornately, in a billowing white dress with a fashionably low neck and gossamer sleeves. A turban, like a large bird's nest, is perched on top of her auburn curls. In one hand, she holds a large gold harp, and in the other a songbook, open to a piece by Thomas Moore:  'Oh Say Not That Woman's Heart Can Be Bought' — a purposeful selection. The King portrait is is romantic, commanding, and political.

      Gilbert Stuart painted the other portrait. In it, Louisa is small and thin. Her ornate bonnet, high lace collar, and scarlet shawl almost envelop her; there are deep shadows. The colors of her face are washed out, the lines soft. Her expression is kind but tired and sad. Louisa first saw the finished version at an exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum and thought it an accurate representation. It looked, she wrote, like a woman who has just felt 'the first chill of death.' She was half joking; there's something gentle, appealing, and intimate about the painting. But it is the portrait of an older woman, and it suggests some secret sorrows. Its tone is essentually private.
      Both portraits — one political, one domestic; one lively, one exhausted; one powerful, one withdrawn — captured something essential about her. She was both women, however contradictory the images seemed.

from Louisa:  the extraordinary life of Mrs. Adams, by Louisa Thomas

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