Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book Review: "Lives Shaped by the American Revolution"

Jeannine Falino's Lives Shaped by the American Revolution: Portraits of a Boston Family (Harvard University Art Museums, 2005) highlights a collection of twelve family portraits which ended up in the possession of Catherine Coolidge Lastavica (some have now been given by her to various museums).

Thank goodness for the genealogical chart printed on the endpapers of this volume; without it the reader would have no chance at figuring out the connections between the sitters. As Jeanine Falino says in the first sentence of the text, "It is often said among art historians and genealogists who specialize in the history of colonial New England that the early settlers were all related to one another" (p. 13). The intertwined Speakman, Rowe, Inman, Linzee, Coffin and Amory families as outlined in the charts speak directly to this, and also, as Falino continues, "For those willing to look deeply into these portraits and the lives of their subjects, there is a fascinating story to be learned about American life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."

Falino's narrative briefly limns the lives and fortunes of the families whose portraits appear here, drawing on official records, genealogical accounts, family correspondence and papers (including John Rowe's diaries, the originals of which are at MHS, as are the Amory Family papers and other associated materials). Each of the twelve portraits (ranging across four generations of these families) is described in detail and reproduced in a high-quality color image.

Lastavica provides a useful preface to the book, outlining the descent of the portrait collection through her grandmother's family, and William Adair provides a short essay on the history of the frames on the portraits and their historical significance.

One of my favorite stories associated with this family is the union of Susan Amory with the great historian William Hickling Prescott, which resulted in the crossing of Amory's grandfather John Linzee's sword with that of Prescott's grandfather John Prescott (the two had been on opposing sides during the Battle of Bunker Hill). The swords hung crossed in the Prescott family home, and are now at MHS, still crossed.

A neat introduction to American art and the complications of New England genealogy.