The Gordon portraits depict the family of an Ulster merchant and planter of Scottish origin who emigrated to Lancaster County in 1738. Through trade with merchants in the British Isles and the West Indies, voracious land purchasing, and active public service, James Gordon quickly rose to prominence, which he celebrated in 1751 by commissioning a sizeable group of large, expensive portraits of himself, his successive wives, his three children, and his brother who had emigrated with him. Posed in contemporary clothing before grandiose, artificial settings of an outdated seventeenth-century portrait tradition, the sitters seem provincial.
The commission for the Gordon portraits seems to have resulted simply from the sudden availability in Virginia in 1751 and 1752 of a competent artist, either John Hesselius or Robert Feke. Both appeared in the colony at this time; Hesselius emulated the style of the much more accomplished Feke. Four additional Gordon children who lived to maturity, born between 1752 and 1765, were apparently never painted.
Posed proudly and modeling a handsome wig that signified his new wealth, merchant James Gordon (1714–1768) clearly was pleased to have attained in Virginia the financial success that had eluded his family in northern Ireland. A deeply religious man, Gordon primarily invested his wealth in land, slaves, the goods in his stores, a sloop, and a large library of 391 books. John Hesselius of Philadelphia and later Maryland developed his painting technique under the strong influence of the established New England painter Robert Feke, who created stunning imagery in this same, peculiar style. (Gift of James W. Gordon, Jr.; VHS accession number: 1982.35)
Millicent Conway Gordon (1728–1748), born to a prominent Lancaster County family, gave birth in her short life to four children, two of whom survived infancy and sat for their portraits. Either John Hesselius was in Virginia in 1748, or family records of the sitter's dates are incorrect, for this portrait is unlikely a posthumous work. It was a major accomplishment for the young John Hesselius. The canvas so closely resembles the style and quality of portraits by Robert Feke that it might be wrongly attributed to the latter were it not signed by the former. Feke's mannerisms of the small head, prominent bust, pinched waist, posturing hands, and attention to shimmering fabric are all present here. (Gift of James W. Gordon, Jr.; VHS accession number: 1984.4)
Ann and Sarah Gordon, c. 1750 or 1751, attributed to John Hesselius
Because John Hesselius was the painter of at least one and very probably both parents of these children, he is the likely candidate to have produced this image. Its grandiose landscape is in fact imaginary, taken from popular but outdated prints. The motifs of the held flower and the bird were common enough in those readily-available sources. The Virginia image seems more believable than its English prototypes, because it is simplified and pictures in the backdrop a plantation complex, perhaps meant to represent the family home Gordonsville, newly erected on Lancaster County property purchased in 1747. Childrearing on the Virginia plantation involved separation of the sexes and instruction in gender-specific roles. From the evidence of this portrait, Ann (1743–1766) and Sarah Gordon (1747–1758), seven and three years old in 1750, were then already well instructed in genteel behavior befitting their family's newly attained dynastic status. (Gift of James W. Gordon, Jr.; VHS accession number: 1984.47)