Mary Magdalene (Gendron) Prioleau
ARTIST: Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston (ca. 1674 – March 9, 1729) is recognized as the earliest professional female artist and the first known pastelist working in the American colonies. The daughter of Susannah de Beaulieu, it is generally accepted that she was born in northwestern France and that her family immigrated to London in the mid-1680s. Henrietta was of French Huguenot descent.
In 1694 Henrietta Beaulieu married William Dering, and moved to Ireland. It was during this time that she began to draw pastels, as is evidenced by her earliest portraits of a number of people to whom she was related by marriage, including members of the Percival family. Although the quality of her work suggests that she had received formal training, nothing is known of her education. Like her contemporaries, however, she copied the conventions set by London court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). It is possible that she studied with Dublin artist Edward Lutterel (1650-1710).
Widowed by 1704, and the mother of two daughters, Henrietta married in 1705 Anglican clergyman Gideon Johnston who was appointed two years later to serve as commissary of the Church of England in North and South Carolina and the Bahama Islands and to serve as rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. The Johnstons arrived in Charleston in 1708, and over the next few years Henrietta’s work as a pastel portraitist became critical to the economy of her family as is proven by one of her husband’s letters, in which he wrote: “were it not for the assistance my wife gives by drawing of Pictures (which can last but a little time in a place so ill peopled) I should not be able to live.” Gideon Johnston died in a boating accident in 1716 and Henrietta remained in Charleston until her death in 1729. She is believed to have traveled to New York City in1725 where she drew at least four portraits of a family of that city. More than forty of her portraits survive, many of which are of members of Charleston’s early Huguenot community.
FRAME: Unfortunately the original walnut frame was discarded in 1943 when the pastel was restored by a previous owner. The original walnut frame was discarded in 1943 when restored. The original backboard (no longer extant) was inscribed: “Henrietta Johnston Fecit/ Charles Town Ano 1715.” “Jeannie Merlat/ who married/ Rev Samuel Prioleau/ in Xaintonge in France” On paper on backboard: “No. 1/ [Mag_____ ___dron]/ wife [daughter crossed out] of ___muel Prioleau/ the minister taken before the/ oil Portrait.” [Note that subsequent research indicates the sitter was the wife of Samuel Prioleau, Jr.]
RELATED OBJECTS: The MESDA collection is home to three works by Johnston: a portrait of Frances L’Escott (MESDA acc. 964), a portrait of Colonel Samuel Prioleau (MESDA acc. 2048.1), and a portrait of Mary Magdalene Gendron Prioleau (2048.2).
REFERENCES: Whaley Batson, “Henrietta Johnson: ‘Who greatly helped . . . by drawing pictures.’” (Winston-Salem, NC: The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991).
Margaret Simmons Middleton, “Henrietta Johnston of Charles Town, South Carolina: America’s First Pastellist” (Columbia, South Carolina, 1966).
Severens, Martha. “Who was Henrietta Johnston?” The Magazine Antiques, vol. CXLVIII, no. 5 (November 1995).
DESCRIPTION: Pastel portrait of Mary Magdalen Gendron Prioleau. Pastel on paper, portrait of a woman facing forward. She wears a white shift, a blue dress and a gold scarf. The background is gold.