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Dorothy Quincy

Dorothy Quincy Portrait, oil on canvas
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

Born in Braintree in 1708/9, Dorothy Quincy was the daughter of Judge Edmund Quincy and his wife Dorothy Flynt. In December 1738, her marriage announcement in the Boston Gazette described Dorothy as "an agreable young Gentlewoman, with a handsome Estate.1 Though her husband was from a more modest social background, Edward Jackson (1707/8-1757) became a substantial Boston merchant and owner of iron mills at Milton. He later bought the great Quincy estate at Braintree to keep it in the family.2

Dorothy and Edward had two children. Their son, Jonathan Jackson, became a well-known merchant in Newburyport and Boston, and his pastel portrait (ca. 1768) by John Singleton Copley is in the collection of the Historical Society. The Jacksons' daughter, Mary, married Oliver Wendell of Cambridge in 1762. She inherited the portrait of her mother, and the picture hung in the Wendells' Cambridge home. It was Mary’s grandson, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), physician and poet, who immortalized his ancestor in the poem, "Dorothy Q: A Family Portrait." Holmes recalled his boyhood impression of the painting:

It was a young girl in antique costume, which made her look at first sight almost like a grown woman. The frame was old, massive, carved, gilded-the canvas had been stabbed by a sword thrust-the British officer had aimed at the right eve and just missed it.3

Holmes himself had the painting restored, and he ended his poem with a promise and wish for the painting's future:

It shall be a blessing, my little maid!
I will heal the stab of the Red-Coat's blade,
And freshen the gold of the tarnished frame,
And gild with a rhyme your household name;
So you shall smile on us brave and bright
As first you greeted the morning's light,
And live untroubled by woes and fears
Through a second youth of a hundred years.4

Though the painting has been dated in the early 1720s on the basis of the flat, linear style and the apparent age of the sitter, the artist is unknown, and the portrait has not been linked to other contemporary paintings. The fresh, clear skin tones and the brilliant red shawl contrast dramatically with the dark background on the left. The color of her dress is unusual for this period, when most were red or blue, because green dye faded easily and was thus a more expensive choice. Along with the silken shawl, this special color illustrates the material success of the sitter's family. The exotic parrot locates the picture in the New World. The three-quarter length pose with Quincy's elbow leaning on the window sill, the long curl curving over her left shoulder and the landscape, airy and illusionistic compared to the rest of the picture, are all conventions of eighteenth-century English portrait painting. Used at this period in the colonies, they indicate a familiarity with English mezzotint engravings which were known in the New World.5 John Smith's mezzotint after Kneller portrait of Margaret, Countess of Ranelagh, may have been the artist's print source for this painting. Dorothy Quincy's pose, hairstyle, and dress are all similar to those of the Countess.6

1. Boston Gazette, Dec. 1738.

2. John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass., and Boston, 1873-1975, 8:62.

3. Eleanor M. Tilton. Amiable Autocrat: Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York, 1947, pp.5-6.

4. Oliver Wendell Holmes. The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Cambridge, Mass., 1895, p.187.

5. Wayne Craven. Colonial American Portraiture: The Economic, Religious, Social, Cultural, Philosophical, Scientific and Aesthetic Foundations. New York, 1986, p.171; Carol Troyen. “The Boston Tradition: Painters and Patrons in Boston, 1720-1920.” In The Boston Tradition. Boston, 1980, p.52.

6. John Marshall Phillips, Barbara N. Parker, and Kathryn C. Buhler, eds. The Waldron Phoenix Belknap Jr., Collection of Portraits and Silver. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, p.144.


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