Virginia's Colonial Dynasties
Vulnerable to economic instability and competition that could disrupt their hard-won financial and social status, even the most accomplished settlers on the frontier that was colonial Virginia felt less than secure. They looked for ways to entrench their standing and thereby preserve it. One was to structure society around the family dynasty. Another was to commission portraits. Portraiture was pursued in the colony with enthusiasm.
Rarely were portraits in colonial Virginia isolated commissions. Instead, they were conceived and displayed as family groups that extended, wherever possible, across more than one generation. Images of ancestors were reverently retained because they served to provide historical legitimization of family status. Portraits of heirs served to project family status into the future. Portraiture furthermore provided a means by which the children of dynasties could be instructed, not only in family accomplishment and expectations but also in the dress, deportment, and behavior of genteel adults.
A Philadelphia visitor to Isham Randolph was warned by a mutual London friend to go "handsomely dressed" to Virginia because people there looked "more at a man's outside than his inside." William Fitzhugh wrote on several occasions of the necessity to present a "creditable" appearance in order to live "comfortably" in Virginia. Portraiture conveyed "creditability." So did a great plantation house, a family library, a collection of furniture, or silver engraved with the family crest. The assortment of objects exhibited here amongst the portraits alludes to that point.
The Randolph and Fitzhugh dynasties were among the most visible during the colonial era; eventually those families became renowned up and down the eastern seaboard. Many other early Virginia dynasties are also represented by the portraits and objects displayed in this exhibition.
William M. S. Rasmussen