“Lucy at Locust Hill”

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Portrait by Janet Brome

Artist’s statement:

This is a portrait of Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks at age 40 at home at Locust Hill in 1792. The only existing portrait painted during her lifetime depicted her in old age, thus my painting of her is a sleuth's guess as to her appearance as a younger, but mature, woman. Studying the original portrait, which was painted by John Toole the year she died, I could get the basic bone structure of her face - the deep-set eyes, long, straight nose, and high cheek bones. I also referred to images of her son, Meriwether, and her daughter, Jane.

Based upon floor plans of Locust Hill sent by Mrs. George Gordon, this image shows Lucy in "Grandma's Room" on the ground floor. Because few artifacts remain that would have belonged to Lucy, I wanted to include whatever I could that still exists - what is known, and not conjectured. The desk shown here was used by Meriwether Lewis and may well have been used by his mother. Although many family treasures were lost in a fire at Locust Hill, records show that "grandma's desk" was saved.[1] I had hoped to include a fireplace mantel in the background, but in Lucy's actual room at Locust Hill there was no wall that would have accommodated her desk and at the same time allowed a view of the mantel as she sat in the desk chair. So I placed her and her desk to the right of the front door as one enters the room; this puts a door to the hallway behind her.

To research her clothing, I went to several books on costumes of the period and watched the DVD of "A Midwife's Tale" (Rogers) which shows the life of a midwife/herbalist living in the late 1700's. The Lewis and Marks families were prominent citizens, but Lucy was not a fancy lady. I depicted her in a dress of homespun fabric, but with a few feminine embellishments - a dress she could work in, yet one that was good enough to wear should a guest drop by.

She is holding Lobelia and Valerian as she conducts herbal research. These two plants were used in combination in Lucy's day as an emetic. There are many types of Lobelia; I chose the common Indian tobacco. I admit to choosing a pink Valerian for purely aesthetic reasons: it looked nice against her dress.

Her books were among her most prized possessions, mentioned in her will, thus I was sure to include several. She loved her silver, so I’ve shown a silver candlestick atop her desk.

In keeping with the theme of this show, Lucy's portrait was painted using only plants as a source of color. During the summer months, I collected flowers, berries, leaves, and bark to make infusions. Many resulted in dull colors, but I was able to use dyes made from sumac and poke berries and black raspberries. For dependable yellow and blue hues, I bought indigo and osage orange dyes and walnut ink. To help preserve these colors, the paper was soaked in tannin made from the bark of chestnut trees (from Christine Andreae's Chestnut House property). This process made for a somewhat splotchy ground upon which to paint, but it adds to the impression of art made in Lucy's time.

Painting with vegetable dyes was new to me. Author and artist Mary Logue sent me valuable information on painting with natural dyes. I also referred to the booklet, "Exploring Period Pigments" by Flavia Beatrice Carmigniani. In the end, it required quite a bit of trial and error to get satisfactory results. In addition to painting many test strips, which I exposed to the sun, I painted three portraits of Lucy before selecting the one to hang in this show.

This project has been an adventure. I have learned much, and have enjoyed the company of dedicated and talented artists and historians.


[1] based upon notes from Mrs. Gordon. Jane Henley provided plans of Locust Hill, and photographs of the desk and other family furnishings. Dr. William Anderson provided detailed information on the construction of this desk, which he owns.