True love, a war-time memento, and virtuoso needlework: inspiration doesn't get much better for me than that! This elaborately embroidered mat was stitched by a young woman in Albany, NY in 1780, specifically to surround the miniature portrait of her fiancé.
The mat is worked in silk and metallic (now tarnished) threads, with metallic bobbin lace (also now tarnished) framing the miniature. The lace may have been a costly import - perhaps it had originally trimmed a gown - or it may have been worked by the young woman herself. The harmony of the design, the elegantly shaded colors, and the precision of the stitches all indicate that she possessed considerable skill with her needle as well as a flair for design.
There's also little doubt that this was a labor of love whose sheer exuberance threatens to overwhelm the tiny miniature, which is less than two inches in height. Imagine how brilliant it must have been when the colors were still fresh and the metallic threads glittered! You can just tell that the young woman was dreaming of her beloved with every stitch she took. Perhaps she even kept the miniature nearby as inspiration.
Who were these two sweethearts? The needleworker was Elizabeth Schuyler, 22, and her fiancé was Lt. Colonel Alexander Hamilton, 23, who was serving in the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to Commander-in-Chief Gen. George Washington. In 1780, the American Revolution was dragging through its sixth year, with no resolution in sight. The war had brought these two together - they had become engaged during the army's winter encampment earlier in the year - just as it also kept them apart during the summer and fall. Both had hoped for a quick wedding, but Alexander's military duties forced them to postpone their marriage until shortly before Christmas, 1780.
While Alexander was occupied with the war, Eliza had returned to her parents' home in Albany. They corresponded frequently, and though her letters no longer survive, his are filled with love and impatience. At one point during the summer and fall, she begged for him to have a miniature portrait of himself painted for her as a keepsake.
In this era before the constant imaging of cellphones, miniatures were the only small and portable reminders of a loved one's face available, much as daguerreotypes would a century later during the Civil War. In war-time, when a violent death or disfigurement could occur at any time, the significance of these mementos rose significantly. Enterprising American artist Charles Willson Peale held sittings in his Philadelphia studio as well as traveling to encampments during the war, painting miniatures of dozens of soldiers for the sum of $28 a piece - a not insignificant amount to young men in an army which was often late paying them.
Alexander had himself painted twice by Peale: one earlier in the war wearing his uniform, and this one that he sent to Eliza, where he is shown a blue coat and a red waistcoat, with his auburn-red hair elegantly powdered and curled. In a letter discussing their coming wedding, he offered to wear either his uniform or civilian clothing for the ceremony; he left the decision to her. Perhaps he had himself painted as a civilian to reassure her that he wouldn't always be a soldier, and that peace would come. It did, but not until after Alexander had fought heroically in the last major encounter of the war, the Battle of Yorktown, in 1781. To her joy, he survived unscathed, and came home to her - a home that always included this portrait and the needlework around it.
Above: Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by Charles Willson Peale, c1780.
Mat embroidered by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, c1780. Both from the collection of the Office of Art Properties, Columbia University Libraries. Image copyright Columbia University Libraries.