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American Ornithology; or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States
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This is one of the six portraits of his eldest children James Beekman (1732-1807) commissioned from John Durand in the 1760s. James Beekman, Jr. studied at Princeton intermittently between 1770 and 1775. He married Lydia Watkins Drew and following the death of his brother William, inherited the family’s country estate and portraits. Like those of the other family members, this portrait of James Jr., at age nine, relies on poses and motifs from English mezzotints. While squirrels were common pets in colonial America, the one perched on James’s arm, taking meat from a nut, also symbolizes perseverance, diligence, and patience. His clothing, which is more ornate than the other children’s, may reflect his recent “breeching,” an important right of passage for young boys, when they would begin to wear knee breeches and dress in men’s clothing much like their father’s.
John Durand (1731-1805) first began working in Virginia in 1765, but by 1766 had moved to New York City to paint portraits of the Beekman children for their father James Beekman. Durand’s background and training are unknown, but his use of rococo colors, interest in historical paintings and reference to his name in French lead art historians to believe he was born or trained in France. He left New York in 1768 as one of the city’s most celebrated painters and returned to Virginia, where he lived for most of the remainder of his life. The style of his late work executed in Virginia changed notably, never garnering him the critical acclaim and popular response his early New York portraits received.
All six portraits of the Beekman children bear elaborately carved and gilded frames by the New York carver James Strachan, which are superior examples of rococo ornament, a style all the rage among the American colonial elite during the mid-eighteenth century. The children's portraits, as well as those of James Beekman and his wife, remained in the Beekman family until presented to the New-York Historical Society through the Beekman Family Association.
Gift of the Beekman Family Association
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
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