Large groups of family portraits were a phenomenon peculiar to colonial Virginia. Displayed here are multiple portraits of members of the Randolph, Fitzhugh, Byrd, Wormeley, and Gordon families. These are names familiar to historians and genealogists, who over the past three hundred years have developed a sizable body of literature about the "first families of Virginia." Scholars have described the FFVs as a dominant force in the development and identity of society in the colony and in the civilizing of America. These extended families wielded economic and political power. They filled a social and cultural vacuum formed by the scarcity and weakness of institutions in the Virginia colony and the absence of a major urban center—a result of settlement on plantations. Their portraits reveal much about an ideal of the extended family distinct to Virginia.
The FFV portraits also show an ideal of the nuclear family. The unit was copied from English society and was rendered on canvas after the prevailing conventions of English painting. Contemporary English values of genteel behavior and order controlled by strong authority were readily accepted by the Virginia gentry as means to form havens of peace and harmony. Their plantations removed them from the disorder and discord that characterized the lifestyle of the lowest segments of early Virginia society. In portraiture, the planter is aptly shown as an imperious patriarch and center of authority. His wife is portrayed as a model of virtue and restraint. Though in fact his subordinate in all decisions from culture to politics, she is his equal on canvas, because portraits are images of family, and women of course are vital to family perpetuation. The conventions used by artists for adult males and females in Virginia are the same used in other American colonies. A difference lies in the quantity and nature of the images of Virginia children. Starting at tender ages, children in Virginia were made to assume the genteel behavior of refined adults.