Wife of a rich New York merchant, the Mrs. Richard Yates portrait judges. Her expression evokes wisdom and confidence, though. So, it’s not unwarranted judgement. Once considered, the question Who do you think you are? may help us find our true selves. But Catherine Brass Yates has already reflected on her personal truth. She knows who she is. It’s also clear that this woman cares little about the judgement of others. After all, this portrait shows her flaws as well as perfect eyebrows and luxurious silks. She’s a woman of means. So, Mrs. Richard Yates could have had this painted in a more flattering way. But she left the mustache on her lip.
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This was 1793, long before the days of Frida Kahlo’s facial hair feminism. But the same message resonates. The Mrs. Richard Yates portrait shares a noble blend of beauty, confidence, and not giving a damn. Some may call this rebellion. But it’s far too subtle and artful for that misnomer. She’s got guts and class. It shows in Gilbert Stuart’s painting details. Her white silk frocks are a sign of high social status. Such garments were impractical at best in those days before dry cleaners or even Woolite. One needed a full in-house staff for such finery.
Her classic aquiline nose also gives her a regal, Roman bearing. She’s like a falcon eyeing her prey – us. Her eyes dare us. Go ahead and interrupt me, they seem to say. Let’s see how important you are. Mrs. Richard Yates works with thread in her fingers. This is what matters to her at the time – not the painter and not the viewer. She’s got greater concerns and it shows in her fantastic face. This is what it meant to be a person of nobility in early America. Politeness ruled the day. But the task at hand mattered most in the moment.
We see all this in the dignified composure of Catherine Brass Yates. The delicacy of the Mrs. Richard Yates portrait invigorates the woman. Stuart’s gentle touch with details doesn’t make his subject demure, though. Mrs. Richard Yates bears her husband’s name as her own. But she knows who she is. Her distinct personality shines through Gilbert Stuart’s depiction. In fact, this was the American painter‘s specialty.
He created several remarkable portraits imbued with the essence of each subject. Though not his most famous example, Mrs. Richard Yates is my favorite of the lot. She’s sewing, dainty, and still utterly dauntless. Catherine’s slight smile reminds viewers that attitude transcends the passage of time. Female strength stays timeless.
A Woman for All Time
Imagine walking into a shop and meeting the Catherine from the Mrs. Richard Yates portrayal. One thing’s for certain, she’s already got the goods. This lady could teach us a thing or two. That’s my favorite aspect of this painting. It reaches beyond the moment it portrays. This is what separates a masterpiece portrait from the rest. She sews. But no viewer would think this was a painting about sewing.
The yesteryear title’s my least favorite aspect of the painting. Gone are the days of calling each other a husband’s name. This artwork of yore harkens to patriarchal bad habits. Women lost their names when they got married. Back then it was both first and last. These hackneyed ways are best kept in the past. That way cool women like Catherine Brass can shine bright as herself not as a man’s secondary self.
Nor is it a mere way to see what this woman looked like. With this tiny sliver of a second with Mrs. Richard Yates in 1793, we see who she is. If a painter could capture a subject’s true self, would you tell them how to paint you? I’d let them portray all the foibles and quirks that make me a singular person. That way it’s a true portrayal.
That’s what Mrs. Richard Yates did. She didn’t squirm or negotiate about her particular traits. Catherine sat, as is. Ms. Yates looked right at Gilbert Stuart with the look of, paint me as I am. Lucky for us, his skills and technique did exactly that. Two hundred years later we can glimpse the real woman behind this masterpiece.
Mrs. Richard Yates Portrait – FAQs
Where can I see Mrs. Richard Yates in person?
This stunner graces the walls at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It’s in the Andrew W. Mellon Collection. These paintings are all either of the gilded religious type or classic portraits. The artist names are familiar including Hans Holbein, Rembrandt, and Diego Velázquez. Many of the artworks are too. But the endearing vigor of Catherine Brass Yates stands out among them. She brightens the room with only a glance.
Who was Catherine Brass Yates of the Mrs. Richard Yates Portrait?
Born to a shoemaker, Catherine Brass married up in status. In fact, marrying Richard Yates meant a steady uphill climb for her social calendar. The Yates’s two daughters married the Pollock brothers. This kept the flourishing Yates business in the family. But even better, they all stayed close. The three families lived in adjoining houses right on the current site of Grant’s Tomb. Not particularly well-known in her lifetime, Catherine Brass Yates’s face is now famous. This painting gets more popular and memorable through the ages. That’s because of her portrayal’s resilient character. It’s come to represent the industrious youth of our United States.
What makes Gilbert Stuart an important painter?
Portrait painter, Stuart was known for painting people with striking character studies. He was lauded for analysis as much as technique. And his technique was extraordinary. Fine details like fingernails look real enough to buff within his artistic domain. Gilbert Stuart was an American painter. But he became famous in London. Like many of his artistic peers, he studied abroad after the American Revolution. In 1782 he painted an acclaimed portrait of an Englishman ice skating. This full length figurative work created quite a buzz. Stuart henceforth found himself in high demand. He went on to paint many esteemed portraits in Europe as well as back home in the States.
* American Paintings of the 18th Century by Ellen G. Miles