Accession number: 1893.3
This group portrait is one of the most interesting and appealing images to survive from colonial America. It speaks loudly and clearly about gentry children and family in colonial Virginia. It is evidence that at early ages children were instructed in manners, dressed as genteel adults, and so groomed to perpetuate family status in a highly structured society.
Whoever the artist, probably the young John Hesselius, he was bold and inventive. To fit four figures in this composition, he devised an imaginary landscape pieced together with the types of imagery found in the backgrounds of English portrait prints. The result is more charming that awkward, an image of an English life-style. As such, the painting no doubt satisfied its Middlesex County patrons.
Comparison of this painting with an English portrait of the FitzPatrick children, c. 1752–53, by George Knapton, shows remarkable similarities. Not only do London-produced costumes and behavior patterns repeat, but so too does the extraordinary toy wagon, a product of new, permissive attitudes about childrearing. From the evidence of this painting, gentry society in England and Virginia were in fact more similar than we might be inclined to believe. At the least, that was the goal of Virginia parents.