Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on January 30, 2009 with permission of the author and the Virginia Historical Society. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Virginia Historical Society directly at 428 N. Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia, 23220, or through either this phone number or web address:


First Fitzhughs of Virginia: A Colonial Dynasty Painted by John Hesselius

by William Rasmussen


An exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society presents colonial portraits of the Fitzhugh family, one of the so-called "first families of Virginia." All of the canvases -- painted by John Hesselius over a period of two decades, between 1751 and 1772 -- have recently undergone major conservation.[1] Thus, for the first time since the early nineteenth century, they can be viewed as they initially appeared, and a significant portion of Hesselius' career, reconsidered.

The Fitzhugh family contributed to the development of culture in the sparsely settled Northern Neck of the Potomac River by patronizing the arts -- notably portraiture, architecture and silver. Although most of the area's historic buildings and nearly all of its decorative objects are now gone, twenty of Hesselius' paintings survive.

Counting one canvas done in England (later copied by Hesselius), five colonial generations of Fitzhughs sat for portraits, a record that is perhaps unmatched in the American colonies. The record is all the more remarkable because the region, for at least part of this period, was a frontier.

Hesselius essentially became "court painter" to this Virginia dynasty. Admittedly, the skills of this native-born artist were no match for those of the best London portraitists, for Hesselius had little opportunity to train. But his canvases are well suited to their time and place. The latter ones are quite impressive, and the group has homogeneity and size. Accordingly, the Fitzhugh portraits are valued as icons of early American art.[2]

Woven within the cultural significance of his Fitzhughs' portraits are threads of societal posturing. The first Fitzhughs helped to fashion Virginia's distinctive plantation society, structured around little more than three entities: government, church, and family. In a rural setting, where much of the population was indigent and uneducated, the family wielded both economic power and what William Fitzhugh called "creditability."[3]

To be "creditable" meant commanding the respect necessary to interact, both in trade and society, with people of similar status. The Fitzhughs found their portraits useful in defining and perpetuating family status, deemed vitally important.

The colonial Fitzhughs exhibited two sizeable collections of portraits for viewing by family and fellow gentry. In the 1690s, William Fitzhugh established a gallery of eight canvases at his residence, Eagle's Nest, a thirteen-room wooden house, one of Virginia's first mansions. This group of paintings, now lost, was unusually large for seventeenth-century America.[4]

Half a century later, William's second son, Captain Henry Fitzhugh, assembled an additional gallery at his Bedford plantation. The Bedford gallery would eventually hold seven canvases. Captain Henry's nephews also commissioned portraits from Hesselius to hang in their own homes.

The display of high-style oil paintings at so early a date at these rural sites was evidence to the attitude of the colony's emerging gentry. Those settlers denied the area's frontier conditions. Rather, they viewed the land as but a remote extension of the British realm.

Both the Eagle's Nest and Bedford collections displayed portraits of two men from whom the family line descended: Henry Fitzhugh of England, and his youngest son, William Fitzhugh. Because the Eagle's Nest collection is now lost, these men's portraits are known only from their Bedford versions (copies made in 1751 by Hesselius). Remarkably, Hesselius suppressed his own mannerisms and faithfully recorded the two very different styles of the originals.

The early patriarch, Henry Fitzhugh (1614 - 1664) of Bedford, England never set foot in Virginia. The original portrait of him must have been brought to the colony by William. This image informed colonial viewers that the family's lineage reached to early seventeenth-century England and, by implication, perhaps to the medieval period.

For at least two centuries, the Fitzhughs had enjoyed some prominence in England, where Henry had at least moderate success as a merchant dealing in woolen goods. However, his modest portrait suggests that he never became affluent. For that reason, Henry Fitzhugh left Bedford for better opportunity in Ireland, and it was there that he died.

His portrait is rendered with a paucity of detail and a somber palette; he wears modest clothing. The style of this work, contemporary Dutch middle-class portraiture, was popular in provincial England. Neither the sitter nor the original artist probably had much knowledge of the sensuous, painterly style then in fashion at the court of Charles I in London.

William Fitzhugh (1651/52 - 1701), emigrated to Virginia before 1673. His legal training made him valuable to the Jamestown assembly, to which he was quickly elected, and an early marriage to an eleven-year-old heiress provided him the means to establish a large-scale tobacco operation on more than 54,000 acres.

William probably sat for his original portrait, 1698, in Virginia, for there is no evidence that he ever returned to England. There was an unusual indentured servant at Eagle's Nest at that time: a man trained as an engraver. In that same year, William ordered "colours for painting...to set up a painter," from a London merchant. These facts suggest that Fitzhugh's engraver took his portrait, in either a sketch or an oil painting. Certainly an engraver would have known the contemporary London prints that are the source for the portrait's exaggerated pose.[5]

William Fitzhugh aspired to a life style remembered from England; he used portraiture as a means to define that standard -- with his proud pose and dress, more in the fashion of contemporary London than Virginia. He wore the wig and costume of an aristocrat. The wig is surprisingly sumptuous, trailing low behind his back, and his blue suit far surpassed the modest coat in his father's portrait.

William was both able and ambitious; the artist captured those qualities. But there is also a tentative hint in the sitter's eyes. Perhaps it was because Fitzhugh was not entirely comfortable in a region where there was little guarantee that wealth, social position, or even life itself, could be maintained. He called Virginia "a strange land," partly due to the absence there of "good and ingenious company."[6]

Until the painting's recent reconstruction, the color of Fitzhugh's suit was murky brown -- more an undistinguished robe than a finely designed costume -- and overpainting had covered the end of his long wig. Yet, even in that condition, the painting had been valued by scholars. Now, returned to its original form, the imagery is striking. Given Fitzhugh's accomplishments and aspirations, and the quality of Hesselius' copy, this canvas, must rank as one of the more significant paintings to survive from early America.

As a patron of the arts, William Fitzhugh probably was unmatched in all the colonies, commissioning silver as well as portraiture. The actual objects are known only through letters and inventories. Today these either do not survive or are hidden in family collections. His collection of 122 London pieces is routinely cited in studies of American silver: so large a group was unique in the colonies for so early a date. Fitzhugh excused his extravagance by arguing that to collect silver was both "reputable" and "politic." In other words, silver is not only impressive, but in hard times it could be melted into hard cash.[7]

If Fitzhugh boasted his avoidance of "Bacchanalian Exercises," he did admit to living "very contentedly and well" at Eagle's Nest. When William entertained, he not only unveiled the silver and "good wine," but also "three fiddlers, a jester, a tight-rope dancer, [and] an acrobat who tumbled around." It may seem a spectacle today, but certainly in the same vein as his pretentious portrait.[8]

William Fitzhugh fathered five sons, and, following the English tradition of primogeniture, he left the Eagle's Nest estate and gallery to William Fitzhugh II. However, this oldest son and principal heir died prematurely, and no portrait of him is known.

Captain Henry Fitzhugh, (1687 - 1758), William's second eldest, demonstrated such scholarly interests that he inherited half of his father's library and earned an education in England. Although few artists were available in the Northern Neck when Henry was a young man, in 1751 he did commission a portrait from John Hesselius. At that time, Henry was a widower at the advanced age of sixty-five, nearly blind, and in residence with the family of his son.

Henry was known as a man of notable character. Tutored by an immigrant Frenchman, he had learned to read and write only French until age eleven. As a student in England, he had never been spoiled with "rich and gaudy" clothes but had been dressed "fit & decent."[9] Probably the best educated Fitzhugh of the family's second Virginia generation, Henry inevitably served in county government and as a burgess in Williamsburg.

In 1756, one of Henry's sons commissioned a second portrait of Captain Henry from Hesselius to hang at Bellair, another Fitzhugh home. Henry's children and grandchildren could look to these portraits with a sense of family pride. Ideally, the paintings would inspire them to perpetuate the social standing he had achieved, while announcing the family's status to all.

The pose in Hesselius' two portraits of Captain Henry is virtually identical, with a slight variance in positioning. Georgian rules of deportment were stringent, and the clothing appears to be Fitzhugh's same favorite suit. The sitter had aged notably since in the intervening five years since his last portrait: Henry's right cornea had so deteriorated that it changed the color of his eye to blue.

So too, the artist's skills had matured. John Hesselius had absorbed the influence of London portraitist John Wollaston, who was in Virginia by 1754 or 1755. Hesselius had learned to better replicate flesh tones and envelop his sitters more realistically in space.

When Hesselius visited Bedford in 1751, he painted not only Captain Henry Fitzhugh but also the captain's eldest son and heir, Major Henry Fitzhugh (1723 - 1783), and the major's wife, in residence at Bedford with the aging captain.

Over the next two decades, Major Henry Fitzhugh became an ardent patron of the arts. In 1767, he brought Hesselius back to Bedford and paid the artist to "alter" his portrait and the canvas of his wife.[10] The flesh tones in these paintings are notably clean, rich in color -- more so than in other Hesselius' canvases from 1751.

The major's portrait depicts a refined sitter. It is evidence of his self-image as a member of the English gentry and the heir at Bedford; and his possessions, worthy of a London aristocrat. He ordered English silver monogrammed with the initials "HF", to indicate the multiple generations of Henry Fitzhugh's line. Sadly, it is not known to survive, nor is the remarkable horse-drawn coach, "in the genteelest taste," he commissioned from London at the same time, 1763. The coach was to have mahogany trim, glass windows with silk curtains, and the family coat of arms painted on the outside doors.[11]

Major Henry derived his title from his rank in the county militia, historians have yet to find evidence of much additional public service. It seems he lived as quietly at Bedford as the rearing of his fourteen children allowed.

John Gordon, a family descendant, viewed the Bedford gallery in 1835 and concluded from the painting of Fitzhugh's then twenty-year-old wife that she was "not very striking."[12] Hesselius' primary purpose was to show Sarah Battaile Fitzhugh's wealth and refinement and that information is effectively conveyed. To be sure, the image is provincial in its impact: a held flower, meant to enhance the impression of feminine grace, conveyed instead the unintended effect of melancholy. After its recent cleaning, Sarah Fitzhugh's portrait more closely resembles its London prototype, which Hesselius knew from a print source.

Henry Fitzhugh of Fitzhughburg (1750 - 1777) was the oldest son of Major Henry and Sarah, and thus, principal heir of the Bedford estate. His portrait, and the matching image of his wife, Elizabeth Stith Fitzhugh (1754 - 1789), both done in 1771, are two of the most handsome canvases John Hesselius ever painted. The works were commissioned to celebrate the son's marriage and ensconcement as successor in the family line.

In imitation of John Wollaston -- who had become both his competition and his inspiration -- Hesselius labored to better replicate the sheen and texture of rich fabrics, to model with color, and to suggest the light and shade that surround a figure in space. Though he was never taught the techniques London portraitists used to achieve such effects, Hesselius developed an effective style of his own. In one respect, he surpassed the example of Wollaston, who tended to be monotonous in his repetition of poses. Hesselius consulted print sources for ideas to enrich his canvases with appealing visual details.

The artist's maturity in response to Wollaston's challenge is especially evident in the 1771 marriage canvases. Hesselius' depiction of light shimmering along Henry Fitzhugh's right arm is masterful and the portrait of Elizabeth Fitzhugh is a striking work that always has been admired. In 1835, John Gordon expounded about the physical beauty of this "most voluptuous looking woman." He noted her "fine round figure [and] lovely bosom partly covered by a rich brocade heightening the charms which it half conceals."

The newly-wedded Henry Fitzhughs resided at a neighboring family residence named Fitzhughburg, which no longer survives, but it must be the brick, hall-parlor house depicted in the background of his portrait. Presumably both canvases of the couple initially hung there. In 1835, however, according to John Gordon's account, they were at Bedford, boldly exhibiting the many attributes of Henry and Elizabeth Fitzhugh: wealth, refinement, and beauty.

In colonial Virginia, however, little was permanent. Six years later Henry Fitzhugh was dead. Elizabeth Fitzhugh lived only to age thirty-five. Fortunately, their legacy remains. And the Fitzhugh portraits -- retained in their original carved, gilded rococo-style frame -- provide an intriguing view of a time, and a talent, past.


1 The conservation was performed by L. Cleo Mullins and Lorraine Brevig of the Richmond Conservation Studio. Funding was provided by grants from the Institute of Museum Services, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the William H., John G., and Emma Scott Foundation, and from individual gifts.

2 See Richard K. Doud, "The Fitzhugh Portraits by John Hesselius," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 75 (April 1967), 159 - 73.

3 See Fitzhugh's letters of 22 April 1686 to brother Henry Fitzhugh and sister Dorothy Fitzhugh, in Richard Beale Davis, ed., William Fitzhugh and His Chesapeake World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, for the Virginia Historical Society, 1963), 170 - 73.

4 The group consisted of the portraits of William Fitzhugh and his father, along with canvases of his wife and five other of his "relations" -- perhaps his mother, his three living sisters and his brother, Henry. Sister Dorothy emigrated to Virginia, but the other family members remained in England and must have had their portraits painted there. In 1687, on two occasions, William wrote to Henry pleading for his brother's "lovely Picture." See "William Fitzhugh's Will and Inventory," and letters of 30 January 1686/7 and 5 April 1687, all in Davis, ed., Fitzhugh, 379, 192, 216.

5 Letter of 26 July 1698 to John Cooper, in Davis, ed., Fitzhugh, 367. Hesselius left an inscription on the back of his painting, but it later was hidden behind an early relining canvas. Until the recent conservation, the inscription was known only from a partial copy of it, left on the lining, and the copy omitted the critical information of the date of the original painting, 1698. What previously was speculation that Fitzhugh's own servant painted his portrait, now seems probable.

6 Letters of 18 May 1685 to nephew William Fitzhugh and 30 January 1686/7 to Nicholas Hayward, in Davis, ed., Fitzhugh, 169, 201 - 8.

7 Letter of 1 June 1688 to Nicholas Hayward, in Davis, ed., Fitzhugh, 245 - 46.

8 Letters of 21 July 1698 to Henry Hartwell, 18 May 1685 to cousin William Fitzhugh, and 22 April 1686 to brother Henry Fitzhugh, all in Davis, ed., Fitzhugh, 365 - 66, 169 - 71; and account of the French traveler René Durand, 1686 - 87, cited in Davis, 18.

9 William Fitzhugh's letter of 21 July 1698 to George Mason, a Bristol merchant, in Davis, ed., Fitzhugh, 360 - 63.

10 Account book of Henry Fitzhugh, 138a, Duke University. The payment was 2 pounds, 12 shillings.

11 Letter, October 1763, to London merchant John Bland, letterbook of Henry Fitzhugh, Duke University.

12 "A Virginian and His Baltimore Diary: Part II," ed. Douglas Gordon, Maryland Historical Magazine, L (June 1955), 113 - 14; cited in Doud, "The Fitzhugh Portraits," 161 - 62.

About the author

William Rasmussen is the Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society. He has written several articles on a variety of American painting subjects and on colonial architecture. His is co-author of The Making of Virginia Architecture, an exhibition catalogue that won the Society of Architectural Historians' Architectural Exhibition Catalogue Award in 1992, among other honors, and Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend (1994). He is a graduate of Washington and Lee University with a doctorate from the University of Delaware.

Resource Library editor's notes

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 30, 2009, with permission of the author and the Virginia Historical Society, which was granted to TFAO on January 14, 2009.

The article pertains to an exhibition entitled First Fitzhughs of Virginia, which was on display at the Virginia Historical Society January ­ May 1997. It appeared in the March - April 1997 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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