Appleton Sisters Portrait

April 28, 2017 Posted by: David R. Daly
A portrait of Fanny and Mary Appleton done by Jean-Baptiste Isabey in 1836.

This month we take a look at a portrait of Fanny Appleton and her sister Mary, which actually did not come to the Longfellow House until after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s death.

This small portrait, measuring only about 17” by 15”, depicts 18 year old Frances Appleton (on the right, in the black dress) and her sister Mary as they appeared during their grand tour of Europe in 1835-1837. The sisters sat for the artist, Jean-Baptiste Isabey, while they were visiting Paris in January, 1836. By this time Isabey already had a long established career, painting portraits of prominent Frenchmen, including members of the nobility and the Bonaparte family. At one point he made a living painting the covers of snuff boxes, something he apparently collected and kept in his later years, as mentioned by Frances Appleton in her journal. On January 12, 1836 she wrote “He showed us a cabinet filled with snuff boxes & curiosities given him by distinguished persons. He has one of Napoleon with a very curious agate in the shape of a dog's head & with some of the Emperor’s snuff still reposing inside.” The Appleton sisters spent a considerable amount of time sitting for Isabey, and even went so far as to provide him with locks of their hair so that he could accurately match the colors in the portrait. The painting was not completed until the following year, and before the Appletons picked it up it was exhibited at the Louvre as part of the Paris Art Exposition. The Appleton girls recorded in their journal “Our miniatures occupy a conspicuous place at the entrance…”

The painting remained in possession of the Appleton family for the next 47 years, not making its way to the Longfellow House until 1884. Presumably it was in the Appleton home at 39 Beacon Street until Nathan Appleton’s death in 1861, after which it appears to have been given to Frances’ brother Thomas Gold Appleton. It was in his Boston home on Commonwealth Avenue until his death in 1884, after which it was willed to the Longfellow children. By 1912 it was on the wall in the Longfellow House dining room, where it can still be seen today.

Last updated: April 28, 2017

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