Following on from one of our blogs about Dido Elizabeth Belle, one of our lovely readers made us aware of this unusual painting titled, Young Woman with Servant which is on display at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Why unusual? It is odd on so many levels. For starters the subject matter, it is titled ‘young woman with servant’ so which is the young woman and which the servant? Whilst looking at it, we found ourselves almost playing a game of ‘spot the difference’.
Let’s look at each woman in turn. The seated woman is wearing no jewels apart from very plain earrings and a jewel on her apron. The artist has made her face appear somewhat one-dimensional and she’s staring into the distance. Would she really have been the one holding the fruit? The hat with flowers is such, a typical wide-brimmed day hat.
The servant: she is dressed in all her finery, notice the detailed lace around the neckline and the arms of the dress, much more elaborate than the lace which the other woman is wearing. She wears no hat, instead, a form of headdress with a fashionable feather in it and a jewel. And those jewels! She is much more adorned than her seated companion, wearing an elaborate necklace and earrings too. Her hand resting on the naked skin of the other woman – would a servant ever be allowed to do that? A symbol of intimacy, surely not acceptable at that time? She is also looking directly at the artist (and viewer) and appears much more three-dimensional.
The setting itself looks to be a hothouse or possibly an artificial grotto. There is fruit in the seated woman’s apron and the orange just about to be picked and added to it. Notice the chair that the ‘mistress’ is sitting on.
We have tried to find a similar example of that period, but without success, although there are reproductions of virtually the same chair dating from the late 1800s which describe it as Rococo (1725-1755), possibly French or Italian, playful, ornate and curvaceous, with a shell-shaped back and serpent arms.
So, it does rather beg the question, is the young woman standing really a servant or an equal? It has also been given the title, Two Society Women.
The painting appeared in a Sotheby’s catalogue of sales dated 9th November 1986, which gave it yet a different title, Ladies Gathering Fruit, c.1750, so we contacted Sotheby’s hoping for some more information on its provenance, but unfortunately, they were unable to provide responses to individual questions, so we were no further forward. We also approached Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and are still hopeful of a more positive response from them.
We then decided to research the artist himself, Stephen Slaughter for more clues.
Stephen was born in London in 1697, one of five surviving children of Stephen and Judith Slaughter. Their other children were Edward, Catherine, Mary and Judith.
Very little seems to be known about his life and as such he warrants very few mentions in books, only half a dozen entries in the newspapers of the day, a brief resume in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies and a short entry on Wikipedia.
Slaughter studied under the famous Godfrey Kneller, then travelled abroad to France and Flanders, returning to England around 1732. He then moved to Dublin for a number of years, returning to London in the 1740s.
In 1745 he was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures (George II), with a salary of £200 per annum (around £24,000 in today’s money). From 1748 until his death in 1765, Slaughter spent time on picture restoration. He was buried on 2nd April 1765 at Kensington.
Just to set the record straight here, only one of his female siblings married, his sister, Judith.
There has been debate as to whether she married the artist John Lewis, but we can confirm that she didn’t – she married a Paul Lewis when she was aged just 16, as confirmed by the marriage allegation dated 4th January 1726, St Giles in the Field.
Judith was widowed by the time her brother Edward wrote his will in April 1770. We can confirm, however, that the artist, John Lewis’s wife was Mary as named in his will, proven 1781.
Each of the siblings left their estate to the next in line with Catherine being the last to die in 1786.
Suggestions have been made that this is a portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle with Lady Mary Milner. This seems extremely unlikely as the two women look to be of similar age and Lady Mary was considerably older than Dido.
If we accept that it was painted by Stephen Slaughter then he died when Dido was a mere toddler so it couldn’t possibly be her in the painting. So either way, as much as we would like it to be a portrait of both women, the theory falls flat on its face.
The portrait raises far more questions than it answers, so if anyone knows anything more about this painting, we would love to hear from you.
Ancestry.com. London and Surrey, England, Marriage Bonds and Allegations, 1597-1921 [database on-line]
Anecdotes of Painting in England. Horace Walpole