Tales Woven into a Botanical Dress: An Analysis of Winterthur’s Portrait by John Greenwood

By Emily Bach, ’22

Vibrant botanical specimens meander whimsically across a dress painted by the early-American portrait artist John Greenwood (1727-1792). The sitter eyes the viewer with flushed, rosy cheeks. Behind her, a surreal landscape of clouds, trees, and shrubbery twist and merge in an almost whirlpool-like manner that obscures the background. What remains in focus, instead, is the sitter herself and her exquisite textile. Unfortunately, the woman’s identity remains a mystery, but analyzing her clothing entangles her in a story of travelling artists, cross-cultural encounters, and her own personal tastes and comfort.

Figure 1: Untitled (portrait of a woman), attributed to John Greenwood, Winterthur Museum, Gift of John and Judith Herdeg, 2017.0042A.

On December 16, 1752, the young portrait painter and Boston native John Greenwood arrived in Surinam in hopes of finding a larger pool of patrons.1 Greenwood’s decision to migrate to Surinam proved quite lucrative. During his stay from 1752 to 1758, the artist painted approximately 115 portraits.2 Despite this prolific body of work, however, only one painting by Greenwood associated with Surinam is known today: Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam (Figure 2).

Figure 2: John Greenwood, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 256: 1948.

However, an analysis of the flowered textile portrayed in the enigmatic portrait now residing in Winterthur’s collection suggests that Greenwood likely painted the unidentified woman during his residence in South America. With its short sleeves and loose-fitting bodice, the garment’s construction would have provided comfort in the tropical climate of Surinam. In the 1750s, the roomy, short sleeves painted in Greenwood’s portrait were not common in dress construction: rather, sleeves tended to reach the elbows and were actually beginning to tighten during this decade. Additionally, dressmakers of this period typically draped and sewed fabric so as to create a smooth fit for the bodice. Greenwood, however, imitated billows and folds in his sitter’s garment with black lines that mimic the dimensionality of gathered fabric. These construction features offered both breathability and reprieve from the heat, supporting the postulation that Greenwood’s subject sat for him in Surinam.

The loose-fitting garment worn by Greenwood’s sitter suggests that she was wearing a woman’s version of a banyan, a Western European interpretation of a Japanese kimono. Constructed from luxurious imported fabrics, such as hand-painted India chintzes and Chinese silks, these robes symbolized worldliness and connections to foreign lands.3 Although banyans were most commonly worn by men, extant examples prove that women enjoyed these garments as well. For example, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London possesses a woman’s emerald green, silk damask banyan that dates to the 1750s, making it contemporaneous to Greenwood’s portrait (Figure 3). Because of a banyan’s association with philosophy, travels, and worldliness, perhaps Greenwood’s sitter insisted on wearing this garment to associate herself with her life in Surinam.

Figure 3: Woman’s silk damask banyan, Victoria & Albert Museum, Purchased with Art Fund support and assistance from the Friends of the V&A, and a number of private donors, T.92-2003.

While trading companies introduced a vast array of textiles to European markets, they also took into account the particular tastes of consumers. Beginning in the seventeenth-century, the English stated a preference for displaying naturalistic botanical prints on a white background. By contrast, extant textiles associated with Dutch manufacture imply that the Dutch preferred colored grounds.4 Contrasted against her stark white undersleeves, the garment worn by Greenwood’s mystery woman is grey-blue, not white, suggesting that her textile is likely Dutch in origin or intended for a Dutch consumer. 

Not only does the fabric’s flowered print provide clues to its potential Dutch influence, it also provides additional information about the wearer herself. The sitter’s identity is elusive, but her portrait reflects her personal tastes because she intentionally chose to be painted in this dress. As the circulation of goods around the globe increased during the eighteenth-century, textiles inspired by Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Turkish floral designs became especially popular in Europe and its colonies. As Zara Anishanslin has described in her book Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World, although these patterned fabrics were extremely popular among western audiences, few portraits portrayed sitters actually wearing them. Instead, colonial portraits typically depicted plain fabrics rather than heavily decorated ones as “they were easier to paint and less likely to date a portrait as old-fashioned.”5 Greenwood followed this trend with the majority of his work. The women and men he painted visually proclaimed their elite social status with sumptuous silk garments, but rarely did any of Greenwood’s sitters wear these desirable printed textiles, with Winterthur’s portrait as an exception. Her identity remains unknown, yet the unnamed woman’s choice in textile expresses personal tastes that separate her from Greenwood’s other sitters.

Discoveries often prompt more questions than answers, and this portrait is no exception. Why did Greenwood’s unnamed sitter live in Surinam? Was her garment meant to commemorate her time in the South American colony, or was she using the textile to signal her general worldliness and genteel status? Why did John Greenwood agree to paint a textile that fell outside his typical work?  In-depth analysis of this portrait and the wider historical context surrounding the painting provide some insight into these questions, but as is often the case, many answers continue to elude the material culturist.

 

  1. Katelyn D. Crawford, “Painting New England in the Dutch West Indies: John Greenwood’s Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam,” in The Eighteenth Centuries: Global Networks of Enlightenment, ed. David T. Gies and Cynthia Wall (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018), 178.
  2. Ibid., 178.
  3. Maryland Historical Society, Spectrum of Fashion (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2019), 125.
  4. Amelia Peck, ed., Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 197.
  5. Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 8.


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