August 15, 2003
Colonial Williamsburg Acquires Rare Needlework Picture
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation recently acquired a rare needlework picture stitched with a vignette of Virginia history. The picture depicts figures of an African-American woman, Chloe, and a Caucasian woman, Catherine Fairfax, who is pointing to something unseen. “It is important because of its portrayal of an African American,” said Kim Ivey, Colonial Williamsburg’s associate textiles curator. “Images of African Americans on American needlework are uncommon, especially at the early date of 1805.”
Ivey believes the composition may have been inspired by the story of Moses and the Bulrushes, a popular subject of needlework pictures with New England schoolgirls in the early 19th century. In the biblical story, an Egyptian princess stands with her servant on a riverbank and points to the baby Moses, who is floating down the river in a basket.
Most of these types of 19th-century pictures were worked in silk embroidery threads and watercolor on a silk ground or painted in watercolor on a woven paper ground, but the object acquired by Colonial Williamsburg is different. “This needlework picture is worked in the unusual combination of appliquéd wool and linen fabrics, wool embroidery threads and beads on a wool ground,” Ivey said.
An inscription on the mat that came with the 15-inch by 12-inch picture reads “Catherine Fairfax with Chloe at Mounteagle, Va. Ann Culpepper Fairfax 1805.” This associates the embroidery with the powerful and influential Fairfax family, which in 1746 held the proprietorship of a tract of land known as the Northern Neck of Virginia, six million acres that encompassed land bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers and much of the lower Shenandoah Valley.
Colonial Williamsburg donor Bernice Kimball was instrumental in acquiring the picture for the foundation.
In addition, $3,000 gifts from “Jeannine’s Sampler Seminar,” an annual needlework symposium in Williamsburg, Va., hosted by foundation volunteer Jeannine Koons, also were used to help pay for the acquisition. Each year, the seminar’s vendors donate a percentage of their profits to the foundation.
Colonial Williamsburg, the nation's largest living history museum, includes three individual world-class museums: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the oldest U.S. institution dedicated to collecting and preserving American folk art; DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, housing English and American decorative arts dating from 1600 through 1830, including the world’s largest collection of Virginia furniture and the largest collection of English pottery outside England; and Bassett Hall, the former Williamsburg residence of Colonial Williamsburg founder John D. Rockefeller Jr. For more information, call toll-free (800) HISTORY or visit online at www.ColonialWilliamsburg.org.