Antique Signed Rhode Island Portrait of Baby in Vibrant Red Dress - Mary Elizabeth Prentice by James Sullivan Lincoln
  • This is a really fantastic American portrait that is exciting on both front and back! First let me tell you about the artist and then I’ll tell you about the sitter and then I’ll tell you about the baby girl’s Rhode Island family and the portrait itself.

    The portrait, signed “J. Lincoln” is almost certainly painted by James Sullivan Lincoln. In 1811, Lincoln was born in Taunton, Massachusetts to farmer and miller Sullivan Lincoln and his wife Keziah. The family moved to Providence, Rhode Island when James was 10. By 14, James began an apprenticeship with a Providence firm of engravers. He job was to make the drawings for the engravings. His drawing skill soon brought him to the attention of artist C.T. Hinckley who took the young boy under his wing and taught him to paint. Within two years of the beginning of Hinckley’s training, James was copying famous paintings with great competence. James began his career as an artist in 1832—a career that would garner him great accolades and would last sixty years. His peers called Lincoln “The Father of Rhode Island Art.” In fact, the Providence Art Club elected him as its first president in 1880. The reverse of the canvas is signed “Taken by J. Lincoln 1833”.

    Lincoln produced over 4,000 painted and photographic images. He painted the portraits of eleven portraits of governors which hang in the Rhode Island State House, six portraits of mayors which hang in the Providence City Hall, plus numerous judges, lawyers, clergy, physicians, professors, industrialists, and other prominent Rhode Islanders. You can definitely see the progression of the state of portraiture in American as well as Lincoln’s painting style as you follow his work from his early years on. His early portraits, such as this one, have a much more folk art feel with more innocence. As Lincoln’s career progressed it is evident that his painting style edged towards a more photographic quality as photographs began to push portrait artists out of the market in favor of photographic portraits.

    Now, let’s move to the portrait before we get bogged down in the wonderful family history that I found. Mary Elizabeth Prentice is a beautiful baby in a stunning red dress. Note the one red shoe peeking out from under her skirt. She has big dark eyes, rosy chubby cheeks, a rather mischievous mouth and a fun little double chin. Her short hair appears auburn to me. In her chubby hands, she holds a downturned red rosebud and an open rose lay beside her on the green carpet. The background includes a heavy half-drape with saber-legged cricket (or footstool) placed in front. The stool has a blue upholstered top edged with brass tacks. Beyond the drape is an exterior with a meandering river leading to mountains. The condition of the portrait is very good with scattered minor retouch. The canvas has been strip-lined (lined only along the edges so that the signature remains visible) and repairs to three very minor punctures. It is on the original stretcher and gilt frame. Framed size is 30 ¼” x 34 ¼”. Sight size is 23 ¾” x 27 ¾”. It’s a really attention grabbing portrait.

    Now to this adorable sitter, identified on the reverse as “Mary Elizabeth Prentice / Born May 21st 1832 / Daughter of / Daniel and Mary Prentice / Aged eight months / when this was taken.” Mary Elizabeth was born into a founding family of Providence and, before Providence, of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Mary’s father, Daniel A. Prentice (often mistakenly referred to in online family histories as Daniel T. Prentice) was a tailor as was his brother, John. Daniel married Mary Bogman of Providence on November 14, 1831. According to census records, they had eleven children. Mary was the fourth-born child and the oldest girl.

    Daniel’s father, Captain Thomas Prentice (born about 1750) was from England where he was drafted into the Royal Navy. However, he escaped from a US bound vessel and settled in Providence. He married Elizabeth Field in 1788 with whom he had at least six children. He was captain of a merchant vessel from Providence to the West Indies and died about 1831.

    Daniel’s mother, Elizabeth Field Prentice, had a distinguished ancestry with some of the first colonists who landed in Massachusetts and, later helped found Rhode Island. Elizabeth’s 4th great-grandfather, Hohn Willis was born about 1610 in England. He headed to Virginia on the ship “Paul” but where he actually landed is uncertain. He settled in Duxbury, Massachusetts and married widow Elizabeth Hodgkins Palmer in either 1627 or 1638. John and Elizabeth had eight children together whom they raised with Elizabeth’s three children from her first marriage. Bridgewater, MA was established from Duxbury in 1656 and John Willis was the first Deacon of Bridgewater and held Representative of Bridgewater to the old Colony Court.

    Another of Elizabeth Field Prentice’s 4th great-grandfathers was William Ames was born in Briton England in 1605. One family history states that William and his brother came to American on the ship “Hercule” but I find the two Ames brothers on the list of the ship “Mary Ann” in 1637 (the “Hercule” arrived in 1635 and again in 1637). The brothers came as dissenters from the Church of England and became members of the Calvinist church in Massachusetts. William settled in Braintree, MA in 1638 with his wife Hannah, who was also born in England. William and Hannah met and married in Braintree between 1638 and 1639. William became a freeman (meaning he was now a citizen with voting rights) in 1647.

    Elizabeth Field Prentice’s 2nd great grandfather, John Field was born in England in 1616 but migrated to America in 1632. (A little history lesson: Providence was settled by Roger Williams and a small band of followers who were escaping banishment from the Colonies by the Puritans because they thought that he was spreading “new and dangerous ideas”. Williams founded the colony of Providence Plantation in 1636, which provided a refuge for religious minorities. Williams was a member of the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence. Williams wanted Providence to be a haven for those "distressed of conscience", and it soon attracted a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals. From the beginning, a majority vote of the heads of households governed the new settlement, but "only in civil things". Newcomers could be also admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote. In August 1637, a new town agreement again restricted the government to "civil things". Williams form of civil government was, effectively, the first US separation of Church & State.)

    John Field settled in Rhode Island by at least 1636 and he signed the 1637 Providence Civil Compact with his mark. Field also signed the 1640 Plantation Agreement at Providence which replaced the prior agreements while continuing and strengthening the idea of a separation of Church and State. John Field the 1st lived the rest of his life in Providence and died about 1692. He and his wife had two sons, John and Zachariah. John Field the 2nd left Providence to move to Bridgewater, MA, married Elizabeth Everden and had at least 7 children, the eldest also named John. John Field the 3rd lived most of his life in Providence and married Elizabeth Ames (granddaughter to William Ames and John Willis identified above). The family line continued through a few more John Fields and then James Field who married Sarah Birkett and had twelve children, including our sitter’s paternal grandmother Elizabeth (“Betsey”) Field….which leads back to the beginning part of the ancestry description above. I found a rather fabulous self-published book online, Genealogy The Field Family of Providence, Rhode Island at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2007/20070601016ge/20070601016ge.pdf.

    Our portrait sitter, little Mary Elizabeth Prentice, grew up to marry John Alexander Hamilton of New York. John Hamilton lists himself as a jeweler in the 1865 Rhode Island census; as working in a jeweler’s shop in 1870; and as a manufacturer of jewelry in 1870. In the 1860 Federal and Rhode Island censuses, Mary is still living with her parents so she and John must have gotten married between 1860 and 1865. I can only find records indicating they had one son, Clarence Grant Hamilton, born June 9, 1865. Clarence became a musician and teacher. He was listed in “Who’s Who in New England” in 1909. Clarence graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University in 1888; studied music with several prominent musicians; taught music; acted as an organist at various churches; was an associate professor of music at Wellesley College; published songs, anthems, and piano pieces; and wrote several scholarly publications about music.

    Mary Prentice and John Hamilton are buried together at the North Burial Ground in Providence. Mary’s parents are also buried there.

    This is a beautiful, vibrant portrait that will be the eye-catching center of your collection!

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