Portrait of a Captain's Wife

An Oil Painting of Rebecca Benson

Original content by: Bethany Bonner

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

This portrait of Rebecca Benson, wife of Captain Timothy Benson is an oil painting likely painted while in port during a voyage aboard the bark Martha Davis.  This merchant ship out of Boston, under the command of Captain Benson, traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Manila around 1880. The Benson's were accompanied by their daughter, Clara Benson, who is the subject of a companion portrait.

This portrait was likely painted from life, however, little is known about who painted it.  During the 1800s, there were a large number of China Trade Artists who, for a small fee, would paint portraits of ships and people.  They did not, however, sign their work.  These artists had skillfully mastered the western style of painting or were learning it from painters such as George Chinnery — originally from Europe — living and painting in Chinese ports.

Often, these artists would pre-paint the background and have a portrait (of a person or a ship) ready in a day or two before the ship left port.  Not all of the portraits were painted from life, as some were painted from a photograph.  It can be noted that upon close inspection today, the backgrounds of many of these paintings are cracking.

The craquelure that is seen in the painting is a result of the surface paint drying faster, perhaps due to the fast pace it was executed.  In some cases, the paintings by China Trade painters may have been rolled up wet and stored until the ship returned to their homeport.  In others, the paintings were delivered with a carved, wooden, "Chinese Chippendale style" frame.

The paintings were often souvenirs for the seamen who purchased them.  As such, they have typically not been taken seriously by art historians.  Many art historians believe them to be "decorative" art, given the paintings typically have anonymous artists and subject matter.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. How does this portrait fit into the style of painting during the late 19th century?
  2. If this portrait could speak, what would it say?
  3. What would be a similar genre of painting to compare this portrait to in today's art world?