are pictorial images embroidered in silk or wool onto a ground fabric, usually silk or linen. Often framed for display, they could also be used as covers for small wooden cabinets or decorative fire screens. Like samplers, needlework pictures were an important part of the education of young women of means in both Europe and America in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries.
The archaeological record indicates that pictorial embroidery was worked from very early times in many parts of the world. Examples have been found in China and Peru that date from the second century BCE. One of the most famous of the early European examples is the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered wall hanging that depicts the Norman conquest of Britain, worked by professional embroiderers about 1070. In the Middle Ages, pictorial needlework was used to embellish ecclesiastical vestments, high-quality wall hangings, and other furnishings, clothing, and domestic textiles. During the seventeenth century, needlework pictures began to be framed for display, a tradition that was brought to America. The earliest known American example is a set of pictorial needlework covers for a small cabinet that are said to have been worked sometime between 1655 and 1685 by the daughters of John Leverett, governor of Massachusetts.
The vast majority of European and American needlework pictures from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were worked by schoolgirls. Needlework, along with music, drawing, and painting, was taught as a skill. In most cases the designs were copied from engravings and other printed sources. Some of these were published specifically as needlework patterns; for example, a map of Europe published in Lady's Magazine was copied and worked by Philadelphia schoolgirl Ann Smith in 1787. Scholars have been searching for print sources for other needlework pictures since the 1930s, but many remain unknown. At times a number of designs from various printed sources would be combined, often without changes to the relative sizes of the patterns, so that unusual proportions might be the result; for example, enormous floral sprigs might be placed beside smaller human figures.
There is evidence that some designs were drawn or copied by needlework teachers, and that some girls were taught to draw and copy needlework designs themselves. A rare drawing book owned by Ann Flower of Philadelphia has survived from the mid-eighteenth century. It contains needlework designs, pictures of her home and family, and copies of botanical illustrations. Other less skillful young women commissioned local artists to draw needlework patterns for them; an example of a design for whitework survives, inscribed "Drawn for Miss H. McIntire" and initialed "I.C." In fact, a number of professional artists have been identified who drew needlework designs for young women to work, among them Samuel Folwell (1764-1813), who worked in Philadelphia, and the portrait painter John Johnston (1753-1818), who worked in Boston.
So many American needlework pictures survive from the mid-eighteenth century that regional styles and characteristics, and at times particular schools, can be identified. By the 1740s Boston artists were known for their pastoral canvaswork pictures, worked primarily in wool on linen canvas in a small, diagonal stitch, known as a tent stitch, which covers the crossing of the warp and weft of the ground linen, and which today is known as needlepoint. This group is often referred to as "Fishing Lady pictures," despite the fact that not all of them depict a woman fishing. They closely follow a model for pastoral canvaswork pictures established in England in the early eighteenth century. At about the same time, a group of needlework pictures that look very different but that employed the same embroidery technique have been identified as from Norwich, Connecticut. These depict Bible stories or other narratives, illustrated with figures in contemporary dress. In the 1730s a group of silkwork pictures was made by girls attending the school operated by Elizabeth Marsh (1683-1741) and her daughter, Ann (1717-1797). These pieces were worked in silk thread on a silk ground using primarily a flat stitch, an American version of a satin stitch, intended to save on expensive silk thread.
The height of popularity for needlework pictures worked in silk on a silk ground was from about 1790 to the 1830s; this coincided with a period of growth in the number of female academies in the United States. The eighteenth-century European and American predilection for heightened sentimentality provided subjects for many needlework pictures. At least three