Object of the Month

Dorothy Quincy: Portrait of the Little Maid with her Parrot

Dorothy Quincy Portrait, oil on canvas

Dorothy Quincy

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This painting, dated circa 1720, depicts a young Dorothy Quincy of Braintree, Massachusetts. The painting is unsigned, and is likely the work of an American artist. It descended through her family until it was bequeathed to the Massachusetts Historical Society by her great-great-grandson Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1936.

Who was Dorothy Q?

In 1871, Dorothy Quincy’s great-grandson, physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) penned “Dorothy Q.” an ode to this portrait, containing musings on the young girl’s life and their connection through time:

Grandmother’s mother: her age, I guess, / Thirteen summers, or something less; / Girlish bust, but womanly air; / Smooth, square forehead with uprolled hair; / Lips that lover has never kissed; / Taper fingers and slender wrist; / Hanging sleeves of stiff brocade; / So they painted the little maid. / On her hand a parrot green / Sits unmoving and broods serene….

Dorothy Quincy was born in 1709 into one of Massachusetts’ most distinguished families, the Quincy family of Braintree. Edmund Quincy, the immigrant, first settled on the piece of land where Dorothy grew up in 1636, with the homestead being occupied and improved by successive generations of Edmund Quincys. Her father, Edmund, was a member of Harvard’s Class of 1699 and her mother, Dorothy Flynt, was the daughter of Reverend Josiah Flynt and sister of Harvard tutor Henry Flynt. The pair had ten children, only four of whom—Dorothy, Edmund, Josiah, and Elizabethsurvived to adulthood. Edmund was active in the community and served several terms as Selectman and Justice of the Peace and was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Council, as well as being an Associate Justice of the Superior Court. After his wife’s death in August of 1737, Edmund was called to serve as a commissioner in the matter of the boundary line between Massachusetts and New Hampshire, requiring him to travel to London. While there, he was inoculated for smallpox and died of that virus within the month. Reverend John Hancock eulogized him as the “best of fathers and friends,” noting that he had expired “in a prayer for his dear native country.” The Boston Weekly Journal called him “a bright ornament and an eminent benefactor to his town and country.”

A few months after her father’s death, twenty-nine year old Dorothy married Edward Jackson, a 1726 Harvard graduate and sometime business partner of her brothers Edmund and Josiah. Upon her marriage, the Boston Gazette described Dorothy as “an agreeable young Gentlewoman, with a handsome Estate,” suggesting to those in the know that her husband was “marrying up.” Although Edward Jackson did indeed come from a more modest family background, he became a substantial merchant and owner of iron mills at Milton, Massachusetts. Dorothy and Edward had two children—Jonathan Jackson, who became a well-known merchant in Newburyport and Boston and Mary, who married Oliver Wendell, in whose family this painting descended. Edward Jackson died of consumption on 13 June 1757; his widow Dorothy survived him and died in 1762.

O Damsel Dorothy! Dorothy Q.! Strange is the gift that I owe to you …

In “Dorothy Q.,” Oliver Wendell Holmes writes of a hole in the canvas—“That was a Red-Coat’s rapier-thrust”—and his plans to repair the painting and its frame that she might “live untroubled by woes and fears / Through a second youth of a hundred years.” During the Siege of Boston, Dorothy’s portrait hung in the house of Oliver Wendell, which was being occupied by British officers. To pass the time, one of the officers “amused himself by stabbing poor Dorothy … as near the right eye as his swordsmanship would serve him to do it.” True to his poetic promise, Holmes did have the painting repaired and the hole is no longer apparent. The poem also contains an amusing bit of art criticism. Holmes writes “Who the painter was none may tell / One whose best was not over well; / Hard and dry, it must be confessed / Flat as a rose that has long been pressed.” Despite Holmes’ opinion of its artistic merits (which are characteristic of many portraits of the period), Dorothy Q’s youth and vibrancy shine through even today, almost 300 years after it was painted.

See the full text of “Dorothy Q.: A Family Portrait” here.

The Object of History, exhibition opening 13 June 2013

Dorothy Quincy’s portrait, along with a wide-ranging selection of art, artifacts, clothing, furniture, manuscripts, maps, and silver, will be featured in The Object of History: 18th-Century Treasures from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The exhibition will explore the meaning of historical objects and the reasons for their preservation and survival, whether valued for their associations with notable historical figures or landmark events, as objects of beauty, as the survival of relics from a distant past, or for the stories they convey. The Object of History opens 13 June 2013 and will run until 7 September 2013. Exhibition galleries are open to the public at no charge from 10 to 4 Monday through Saturday.

Also on display this summer at the Society’s Boylston Street headquarters will be “The Education of Our Children Is Never out of My Mind”: John & Abigail Adams’s Thoughts on Education (also through 7 September) and “Estlin Cummings Wild West Show”: The Early Writings & Drawings of E. E. Cummings (through 30 August).

Visit our Calendar of Events for further information about our exhibitions and gallery talks.

For Further Reading

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a large collection of family papers of the interrelated Quincy, Wendell, Upham, and Holmes families

Gould, Elizabeth Porter. “Dorothy Q., A Colonial Maiden,” National Magazine, September 1899, p. 642- (QP87).

Shipton, Clifford K. Biographical Sketches of Those who Attended Harvard College in the classes 1690-1700 Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933.

Sibley, John L. Biographical Sketches of Graduates in Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, vol. 2 Cambridge: Charles W. Sever, 1881.

Tilton, Eleanor M. The Amiable Autocrat: a Biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes New York: Schuman, 1947.

Wilson, Daniel M. Quincy, Old Braintree and Merry-Mount Boston: George H. Ellis, 1906.


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