Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Portrait of the Women Church

Hannah Skinner Church, Elizabeth Maria Church, and Elizabeth Bentley Church, by Jacques-Antoine Vallin, oil on  canvas,  (83 1/4 by 62 in.) 1809 (?)

      This large painting by Jacques-Antoine Vallin depicts three women in the family of Edward Church. Seated to the left is Hannah Skinner Church (Edward's second wife); her daughter Elizabeth Maria Church (known as Maria, life dates unknown) stands in the middle and Elizabeth Bentley Church (1787-1850), wife of Edward Church's son, Edward Jr. is seated on the right. Elizabeth Bentley Church is holding a letter which she is reading to her in-laws. Looking up, she pauses as if waiting for a reaction to the contents of the letter. The women's glances and gestures, and even the colors of the dresses, carry the viewer's attention from the white dress on the right to the gray dress at center to the darker dress on the left, worn by the most discouraged -looking of the three women.

   And what is in the letter? Church family lore identifies it as evidence that Elizabeth Bentley Church's husband, Edward Church Jr., was a bigamist and had married a woman named Marie Dubois in 1799. Although Edward Jr. had children by Marie Dubois it is not certain that he ever married her. That the Church women knew of his relationship with Marie Dubois and that he had children by her, there is little doubt. Edward Jr. had married Elizabeth Bentley, an Englishwoman, in Derby, England and they had two children, - Edward Bentley Church (1807-1847) and Elizabeth Hannah Church (1809-1889/90).

   A Church family history reflects a disagreement as to the identity of the two younger women in the portrait. Two Church women identified them as the daughters of Hannah, the seated one Maria and the standing one Elizabeth; another that the young woman standing is Fanny and the one seated is Maria.. Another family member avers the two are Hannah's daughter Elizabeth and Elizabeth (Bentley) Church. I think the best evidence is that the seated young woman is Elizabeth Bentley Church and the standing one, one of Hannah's daughters.

   Edward Church, Jr. was born in Boston in 1779, educated in England and France, and served as an officer in Napoleon's army.  He left Paris for London with Elizabeth Bentley Church and their two children in November 1809 and returned to the United States in 1811, purchasing a farm in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1817, James Madison appointed him consul to L'Orient, France so Church lived in Europe again until 1832 when returned to Kentucky.

   To enrich matters further, Jacques-Antoine Vallin painted a third picture of the Church family. This one is of the same dimensions of the painting of the Church women but it depicts Edward Church, Jr. with his wife Elizabeth Bentley and their two children.

   Upon his return to Kentucky in 1832, Edward Jr. brought all three portraits back with him. He proposed their future display in an ideal small villa which was never built. He imagined placement of the paintings in a grand second floor salon.

   Now, this is a family history!


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