Fig. 1: Needlework picture, probably depicting the meeting of Isaac and Rebecca. Attributed to Nancy Ann Carlisle, ca. 1690–1740. Mid-Atlantic region, possibly worked in Philadelphia. Embroidered silk on satin weave silk. Museum purchase with funds provided by Lammot du Pont Copeland (1953.0152.007A). Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

Samplers and needlework pictures can provide a tantalizing sense of connection to early American history, serving as rare links to the personal experiences of girls and young women of the era. Even more alluring for their mystery are those pieces passed down without signature or documentation, as is the case with a silkwork picture in Winterthur’s collections since the 1950s (Fig. 1). Long said by family tradition to have been made in early eighteenth-century rural New Jersey, this elaborate piece is made still more complex by a reinvestigation of its origins.

Fig. 2: Sconce, Margaret Wistar, Philadelphia, 1738. Silk on silk satin with linen border. Courtesy Wyck Historic House, Garden and Farm, Philadelphia.

Both its old-fashioned visual style and its biblical subject are suggestive of seventeenth-century English embroidery tradition.1 Points of comparison include the Stuart-style dress, the simply executed facial features, and motifs such as the rolling hills and distant tents, the abundant small animals and flowers, the anthropomorphized sun, and the prevalence of oak trees with snake-like trunks and lumpy leaves.

But what of the family stories that the piece was worked in colonial New Jersey by a girl named Ann Carlisle? Genealogical research reveals nothing to support the traditional creation place. Yet, there are possible connections between the previous owner and an early eighteenth-century Carlisle family, well-off settlers of Sussex County, Delaware.2 Given the region’s proximity to Philadelphia, it’s possible that just such an affluent Delaware family may have sent their daughter to be educated in the city.3 In further exploring the visual clues, we find additional encouragement for a Philadelphia connection.

The picture’s mount represents a powerful piece of evidence.4 With the needlework laced to a cedar board through a series of small drilled holes, the mount strongly resembles those of the two Sarah Wistar pictures in Winterthur’s collection and, according to curator Linda Eaton, of other work from the Philadelphia school of Elizabeth Marsh and her daughter Ann.5 Eaton has argued that mounts and original frames are crucial, and often overlooked, factors in discerning the origins of samplers and embroidered pictures. The piece under discussion may be another case in point, with the mount providing important support for a possible Philadelphia origin. 6

Striking visual similarities to other Philadelphia needlework pictures strengthen the possible connection to this city, and to the Marsh school, in particular. In a 1738 sconce by Margaret Wistar, sister of Sarah Wistar and a likely student of Elizabeth Marsh,7 we see multiple points of comparison (Fig. 2). The treatment of the sun, dog, sheep, and butterfly are all notably similar to these same elements in the present picture. The flying golden birds in particular share the same positioning of body, tail, and wings, the same tufted head, and the same groupings of feathers on the tail and wings. This correspondence carries over to other examples of the same subject, including a circa 1730 picture executed by Ann Marsh herself.8

Fig. 3: Detail of figure 1.
Fig. 4: Needlework picture, detail, Sarah Wistar, 1752. Philadelphia. Museum purchase (1964.0120.002 A). Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

The five-pointed flower in the middle right section of the present picture is an additional motif that appears in the work of Ann Marsh and her students, and, as noted by Amanda Isaac, in Philadelphia silkwork in general.9 Comparing details from the present picture and one of Sarah Wistar’s works at Winterthur, we find a particularly strong visual correspondence. In each of the buff-colored flowers shown in figures 3 and 4, the center is executed in French knots, and the smooth, single-lobed leaves are skillfully shaded using multiple hues of silk, suggesting yet another similarity between the piece under discussion and the needlework of Philadelphia.

Despite a lack of genealogical or historical evidence to strengthen the proposed Philadelphia origin, these visual and technical points of comparison are compelling reasons to attribute the piece to the area. A connection to the Marsh school represents an even more tantalizing possibility: in the annals of American needlework history, Elizabeth Marsh is a major figure, credited with setting the course for the development of Philadelphia’s sophisticated style.10 A confirmed connection to this teacher could strengthen our understanding of an important needlework school. Further, in this picture, we may have an unusual early survival of particularly elaborate work, challenging our assumptions about the level of accomplishment of women and girls of the era.

Emelie Gevalt is a second-year Lois F. McNeil Fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. Previously she was a Vice President and Senior Account Manager at Christie’s, New York, and has a B.A. from Yale. Her Winterthur thesis will undertake a study of Taunton chests, from their 18th-century origins to their early 20th-century interpretations through the eyes of pioneering Americana collectors.

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This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a fully digitized version of which is available at AFA affiliated with Incollect. The original title of the article was: "Winterthur Primer: Traces of Philadelphia in an Early Silkwork Picture."