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Gavin Lawson

Hesselius, John
Place Made:
Stafford County Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
oil on canvas
HOA:56, WOA:45 1/8
Accession Number:
SITTER: Gavin Lawson (1738-1805) lived at Hampstead plantation, Stafford County, Virginia, and moved later to Geneva, Seneca County, New York. He was a successful merchant who had married into the prominent Fitzhugh family. No doubt Lawson commissioned these extraordinary likenesses because of a familiarity with some of the many paintings that Hesselius created of the Fitzhugh family. The Lawson portraits show a strong influence of the English itinerant artist John Wollaston (1710-1775) as well as Hesselius’s fully developed interpretation of the rococo style. They rank among his most ambitious portraits with highly developed compositions, complex perspective, and sophisticated coloring, particularly in the use of warmer hues for shading.

The chair that Lawson sits in is highly suggestive of the work of King George County, Virginia, cabinetmaker Robert Walker 1710-1777).

ARTIST: John Hesselius (1728-1778) was one of the major American-born artists working in the Middle Colonies and the South in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. The son of Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755), a Swedish painter who came to America in 1711, John was probably born in Philadelphia. His earliest signed work is dated 1750. It is thought to depict Millicent Conway Gordon (b.1725) of Lancaster County, Virginia. It is in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society (1984.4). Hesselius latest signed work dates to 1777.

During his career, Hesselius traveled extensively in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and possibly in New Jersey. His work seems to have been confined to portraits. All known examples are in oil on canvas, and there is little reason to suspect that he deviated from this practice. He worked exclusively in the late English Baroque and English Rococo traditions of painting, and his style shows the influence of Robert Feke and John Wollaston more strongly than that of his father.

Hesselius married Mary Young Woodward, the widow of Henry Woodward, in 1763, and after that date his energies were divided between his art and the management of his plantation near Annapolis, Maryland. He was also active in the religious affairs of St. Anne’s Parish in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. His interests appear to have been many, and as an artist and landowner he associated with most of the leading citizens of the colony. Hesselius contributed to American painting, and he extended and modified the English tradition of painting in the Colonies.

FRAME: Thought to be original.

RELATED OBJECTS: The portrait of Lawson’s wife, Susannah (Rose) Lawson (1749-1825) is also on loan to MESDA from Colonial Williamsburg (CWF 1954-262,A&B; MESDA acc. 5957.2). Colonial Williamsburg also owns Hesselius’s portrait of Susannah’s mother, Ann Fitzhugh Rose (1721-1789) (CWF 1989-338,A&B).

MESDA has two additional portraits by Hesselius in its collection: Richard Sprigg (1739-1796) of Annapolis, Maryland, painted in 1761 (MESDA acc. 2023.9) and Samuel Chew (1737-1790) of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, painted in 1762 (MESDA acc. 2661).

REFERENCES: Doud, Richard K. “The Fitzhugh Portraits by John Hesselius.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 75, no. 2 (1967): 159-73

DESCRIPTION: A three-quarter-length portrait of a young man seated, turned in three-quarter view towards the viewer’s left, his proper right arm extended over the far arm of his chair with his index finger pointing downward. His proper left hand rests in his lap. He sits in an open-back arm chair with curving arm rests and carved knuckles. He wears a brown coat and brown knee breeches with a white satin (in appearance) waistcoat, white stockings, white ruffled shirt, and white neckcloth. His near leg is crossed over his far leg. He has brown eyes and brown hair. The background is olive-brown with a dark green drapery filling the upper right corner and with an indistinct rectangular shape [a window with a closed interior shutter?] in the upper left corner.

See the file statement dated November 9, 1954, that was sent to Knoedler’s by descendant Robert Rose Carson, then forwarded to CWF by Knoedler’s. Also see Elizabeth Clare, Knoedler’s, to CWF, November 11, 1954. According to Carson, the portraits of Gavin and Susannah Lawson descended from the subjects to their daughter, Jane Lawson (who married her first cousin, Robert Rose); thence to her son, Charles A. Rose; to his son, Arthur P. Rose; to his son, Arthur Lawson Rose; to his first cousin, Dr. Hugh D. Rose (d. before 1954). The two portraits are believed to have been consigned to Knoedler’s (CWF’s source) by the estate of Dr. Hugh D. Rose.

Christine Rose (“Bibliography”), p. 75, diverges from the preceding in saying that the portraits went from Arthur P. Rose to his daughters, Miss Mary and Miss Hester Rose of New York, NY, thence to Knoedler’s.

Credit Line:
Loan courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation