Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Case of Mistaken Identity?


According to family tradition, this is a portrait of María Ursula de Veramendi (1811-1833), who married the frontier adventurer James Bowie in 1831 when she was 19 years old and died tragically in a cholera epidemic just two years later along with her parents and two children.  But is the sweet faced young woman in this portrait really Mrs. Bowie?

The evidence for this identification rests solely on family tradition, but I believe that family traditions are seldom completely reliable.  How many of us have family albums where ancestors stare out at us but have no names because those who once knew and loved these people died long ago without leaving any record of who they were?  Worse still, how many pictures are misidentified by later descendants who think they know who that person was but in fact, don’t?


I think that may have happened with this lady's portrait.  In 2001, the estate of Muriel Vernet Moore, the great-granddaughter of Rezin Bowie, came to auction. Rezin was the brother of the more famous James “Jim” Bowie, who died at the Alamo.  James Bowie’s portrait was the highlight of the auction and was sold to the State of Texas.


I have not yet seen the catalog, but contemporary accounts say that the estate included several other family portraits, including those of Rezin’s wife, Margaret, and two of his daughters, Martha and Matilda.  Margaret (born 1796) was probably not the sitter for the portrait I am discussing, but one of her two daughters might have been.  From the above portrait of Margaret Bowie, one can perhaps find some family resemblance.  More on this presently. .  .

Aside from the fact that we don’t know whom the artist was it’s unlikely that the portrait was painted in Texas and perhaps not even New Orleans.  The skill of the artist here is comparable to those working professionally in the United States at this time, including George Peter Alexander Healy (1813 –1894), who is believed to have painted James Bowie’s portrait, probably in 1832 when Bowie traveled with his brother Rezin to the United States.  It seems unlikely that Jim Bowie took his young wife with him on this trip, since she was either pregnant or had recently given birth.  But if he did and Healy painted her portrait, too, why then would he have painted Mrs. Bowie in fashions that were still ten to fifteen years in the future?


The fashions of 1832 and 1842 were really quite different.  In the late-1820s – early-1830s, women wore their hair elaborately curled and piled high on their heads and their dresses had puffed, full sleeves. 


Similar fashions were followed even in Mexico and, most likely, by the Spanish-speaking elite women of Texas.


 They were certainly the rage in New Orleans.


And they filtered down into the middle and lower classes of American society.


In contrast to the styles of the late-1820s to early 1830s, the fashions of the 1840s were more reserved.  Women’s hair was parted in the middle and combed to smoothly frame the upper face, meeting at the nape of the neck in a ponytail of curls or at the crown of the head in a bun.  Dress sleeves were tight and the V shape was seen increasingly in the front of the bodice, including the neckline.


How, then, is the portrait, said to be that of María Ursula de Veramendi Bowie, who died in 1833, dressed in the height of fashion for a period more than ten years after she was in her grave? 

Many people buy old portraits just because of their beauty, and this portrait is certainly beautiful.  But it’s also possible that the young woman, dressed in her best black silk, was an ancestor of Muriel Vernet Moore.  It could even be that she was one of her great-grandfather Rezin Bowie’s daughters.  Two of the portraits offered for sale in 2001 were of his daughters, Martha (birth date unknown) and Matilda Bowie (later Moore), who was born in 1816. In fact, because of the shared last name and the fact that Martha died at the age of 21, I believe that if this is a portrait of any member of Rezin Bowie's family, it is probably Matilda. 


One point that makes this a bit more likely is that the sitter in this portrait wears a small cross at her neck.  A cross might be worn by anyone, of course.  But Rezin Bowie and his family were all Catholics, and it is just possible that the sitter for this portrait was one too.

There will be those who will still wish to believe that this is the portrait of Jim Bowie’s Tejana wife, and perhaps they will offer the kinds of arguments that I’ve heard in similar cases of questionable identification, such as "Texas had different fashions than Europe and the United States," "The portrait was painted from memory and the artist put the later fashions on her," or, my favorite, "Can you prove it isn't her?" It’s almost impossible to prove a negative, of course, but I’ve pointed out the anachronistic clothing and offered a more likely candidate. I believe that that is about all I can do for now. 

*My thanks to Kristi Hale for inviting me to discuss the identity of this portrait and for pointing out the resemblance between this portrait and Margaret Bowie.

A. Portrait said to be of María Ursula de Veramendi Bowie, from The Alamo.com.  http://johnwayne-thealamo.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=160&start=1150

B. Portrait of James Bowie, c. 1832, believed to be by George Peter Alexander Healy, now the property of the State of Texas.  This portrait is listed on the website as having been painted c. 1820, but since Healy was born in 1813, he would only have been 7 years old. It was more likely painted during Bowie's trip to the United States in 1832. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Peter_Alexander_Healy#/media/File:Jimbowie.jpg

C. Portrait believed to be of Margaraet Bowie, wife of Rezin Bowie. The Alamo.com. http://johnwayne-thealamo.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=160&start=1150

D. "Helen" a popular print from c. 1830, published by DW Kellogg & Co,  Connecticut. Library of Congress. 

E. This print of a Mexican lady and her son is by Claudio Linati, based on sketches he made ca. 1825-1826 in Mexico and published in his Trajes civiles, religiosos y militares de México (Paris 1828).

F. Portrait of a Young Woman, 1830. Frenchcreoles.com

G. "Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride," by William Sydney Mount, 1830. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/rustic-dance-after-a-sleigh-ride-33204

H. Anonymous portrait miniature of an American woman, c. 1845. 3 American Portrait Miniatureshttp://aminports3.blogspot.com/2013/03/unknown-portrait-of-young-lady.html

I. Photograph of Anna R.L. Baker, ca. 1846. "1840s Fashion in Photographs," Pinteresthttps://www.pinterest.com/pocketmuseum/1840s-fashion-in-photographs/

J. Detail of the portrait said to be María Ursula de Veramendi Bowie, from The Alamo.com.  http://johnwayne-thealamo.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=160&start=1150

“Bowie items at auction,”  Tue, 5 Jun 2001. Rootsweb.com Subject: http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/BOWIE/2001-06/0991761942

Full text of Blade Magazine,” August 2001, Archive.org.

Geni.com, “Matilda Eleanor Moore (Bowie)”

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