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Mary (Ross) Beale

Wollaston, John
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
oil on canvas
HOA: 30; WOA: 25
Accession Number:
SITTER: Mary (Ross) Beale (d.1771) was the daughter of William and Anne (Fuller) Ross. Her father was a merchant who emigrated from Scotland in the 1730s; her mother’s family were early planters along the Ashley River. In 1744, just a year after their marriage, the family moved to Brunswick, North Carolina, where William Ross was appointed Inspector General of the Port. Anne Ross died in childbirth in 1747 and William married the widow of Edward Moseley. Is is not clear whether Mary remained in North Carolina with her father and stepmother, or lived along the Ashley River in one of the many properties owned by her mother’s relatives. Following her father’s death in 1760 Mary was left in the care of her great-uncle, John Drayton of Drayton Hall. The Drayton Hall archives include Drayton’s account book recording expenses for young Mary’s education, music lessons, and fine clothing.

Mary’s marriage to John Beale (1730-1771) in 1762 situated her on East Bay Street near the city’s fashionable center. She died a few days after the birth of a daughter, Mary Hannah, on November 29, 1771.

ARTIST: John Wollaston (active 1733-1767) was an English artist who worked in the American Colonies in the decades preceding the American Revolution. His father, also John Wollaston (d.1749), was also a portrait painter. In addition to presumably studying with his father, Wollaston also received training from Joseph van Aken (d.1749), a painter who specialized in the depiction of fabrics in the paintings of others, include Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Wollaston’s earliest documented painting is of the evangelist George Whitfield (1714-1770) painted in London about 1742 and in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG UK 131).

In 1749 Wollaston crossed the Atlantic and landed in New York where he began painting portraits in the fashionable London style. In 1752 he left New York for Philadelphia, and the following year he set up his easel in Annapolis. He spent about two years in Maryland and another two years in Virginia, completing about one hundred and twenty portraits. By the end of the decade he had returned to Philadelphia.

Wollaston arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1765, probably after a period painting in the Caribbean Colonies. Painting in Charleston had been dominated to that point by the work of Jeremiah Theus (1716-1774); Wollaston’s arrival breathed new life into the city’s portraiture.

Wollaston was prolific, completing upwards of two hundred portraits during his time in the Colonies. His work influenced a generation of American artists, including John Hesselius (1728-1778) and Benjamin West (1738-1820).

FRAME: Original carved and gilt cypress frame, by microanalysis. The frame was carved in Charleston to match the British frame used for the companion portrait of her husband, John Beall.

STRETCHER: Eastern white spruce, by microanalysis.

RELATED WORKS: The MESDA collection is home to five works by John Wollaston: Portraits and portrait miniatures of John Beale and his wife Mary (Ross) Beale (MESDA acc. 3049, 3050, 3809.1-2); and a portrait of Daniel Ward (3351).

REFERENCES: “John Wollaston” in the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalog

Carolyn J. Weekley, “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South” (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2013)

DESCRIPTION: Half length portrait of woman facing forward, wearing a four-strand pearl necklace, pearl decoration in hair and on dress, with one hand posed behind on waist, the other fingers the pearl dress decoration at bosom of her gray-blue damask dress trimmed with lace and ribbon.

Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Jan Mendall