Academic journal article Early American Studies

"Faithful Portraits of Our Hearts": Images of the Jay Family, 1725-1814

Academic journal article Early American Studies

"Faithful Portraits of Our Hearts": Images of the Jay Family, 1725-1814

Article excerpt

When in 1724 twenty-year-old Peter Jay began his career as a New York merchant, following a voyage to England, he began the letterbook he was to keep all his life. One of his first missives arranged with New York's prominent Jewish trader, Daniel Gomez, to sell a cargo in Jamaica. Another, written on January 8, 1725, accompanied a portrait of his sister Judith, along with a barrel of cranberries that he sent to his aunt Françoise Peloquin of Bristol, England. On the same day he wrote to her brother David that he in turn had received David's portrait, but he wished that David had also sent one of Françoise. "I suppose we must wait the return of the schooner to have a view of her pretty face," Peter commented. The schooner took a year and a half to return, until June 26, 1726, although carrying a portrait not of Françoise but of her daughter Marianne. Peter wrote to Françoise of his "joy" to see his cousin's portrait. "The painter was very successful," he judged. "It only lacked speech." He then added the principal reason the Jay family continued to retain possession of their portraits, a reason that holds even to this day:

I often find myself in our Bristol room (as we call it) to pay you a visit, along with those of your dear family. I avow that in one sense, I am renewing my memory of you; but in another, it is not just a painting I own. I fix my eyes upon them, and it seems they are all around me, but like mutes, who cannot say a word. In fact, it is unfortunate that our sad destiny does not allow us to enjoy talking to each other during the short time we have in this world. . . . Since there is no way to remedy this, allow me to pray you to continue your good memories, and I will always try to be worthy of them."1

Eighty-eight years later, Peter's son John, a diplomat, a governor of New York, and chief justice of the United States, was living in retirement in Bedford, New York. His brother Sir James Jay had died the previous year, and John wrote on March 22, 1814, to his son Peter Augustus, who was managing the family's affairs in New York, to have his will registered and a copy made, obtain the deed to the family burial ground in Rye, and place a marble slab on it. But first he requested that "if there is a good portrait painter in New York" to have copies made of the pictures of his grandfather Auguste (Augustus) Jay and grandmother Anna Markka (or Maria) Bayard Jay that formerly belonged to Sir James, the eldest son, and also of his two aunts that belonged to their relatives in the Van Horn family. This took some time: it was not until February 1815 that Peter Augustus arranged with the painter Waldo to copy his great-grandparents' portraits. (A painting of one of the aunts, Maria Jay Valette, survives as well.) Three years later John Jay had further copies made and delivered to Peter Augustus and William (his two sons) and Peter Jay Munro (a nephew he had raised as a son). Responding to Peter's thanks, Jay replied, "These portraits will tend to remind us of our consanguinity, and to cherish an habitual disposition to mutual and cordial attentions and good offices, such as you have manifested on sundry interesting occasions, and recently on a very distressing one"; Jay was referring to the death of his twenty-six- year-old daughter, Sarah Louisa.2 In 1938 the pictures were still owned by Pierre Jay, who was given the original French name of his ancestor, and they may now be found at the Jay Homestead in Bedford, New York, which the last family owner did not relinquish until 1953, as may the portraits of Marianne Peloquin, her father, Stephen, and other family members.3

In old age John Jay not only turned to his ancestors' portraits, but portrayed them in words. Sometime in the 1810s, his son William requested information for a biography of his father he was preparing. John Jay responded with an account of his ancestors' history, but he wrote only a few pages, which did not even reach his own father's life. …

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