Nathaniel Hathaway of the prominent New Bedford family was the grandfather of these two beautiful children, Silvia and Margaret. Fred Allen had been invited to their Philadelphia home to visit and have photographs taken in preparation for modeling the family portraits. The home he visited in Germantown was at one time a “safe house” for the Underground Railroad. Nathaniel’s grandparents were Quaker Abolitionists and active with at least one of the Evans family in Philadelphia in sheltering a slave girl, transporting her from Germantown to their home in New Bedford.
(link to the letter from Gilder Lehrman Institute: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=312)
At present count there are five portraits known to have been modeled of this family: Nathaniel, his wife Eliza, his daughter Susan, her son Edward, and Sylvia with Margaret, his granddaughters born of his other daughter Sylvia. The double portrait is a very sensitive and beautiful depiction of these little girls.
The children face toward the left in profile. They are expressive and different from one another. Little Margaret is a chubby-cheeked and curly headed toddler with individual curls and wisps of hair showing in front of her forehead. Silvia is older and slimmer in the face, her thin short hair lying flat with pointed strands around the forehead, her mouth parted as if about to speak. She has an expectant or attentive look. Her face covers the back half of Margaret so that the ear is not visible, uniting the two heads. There is clarity between the treatment of the smooth ground in front of the faces and in the dark contrasting lines of the profiles, yet the necks blend together so those two volumes don’t occupy the same space. The dresses also blend together to form another volume, heavily textured in contrast to the volume of the faces and collars above. The rhythm top to bottom is 1) decorative edge, 2) smooth ground, 3) textured details of hair and faces, 3) smooth volume of necks and collars, 4) textured volume of dresses, inscription and symbol, 5) grounding base of a horizontal three-banded shelf, and 6) smooth ground. The figures from the top of the head to the bottom of the shelf are centered between the upper and lower edges and although there is more space in front of the faces than behind the heads, the faces are centered side to side. The composition is simple and masterful.
Both girls wear smocked dresses, details suggestive rather that realistic, with gathered dress bodices and smooth collars upturned at the points and lying flat on the back. Silvia sports crisp starched cotton puffy sleeves with a beaded appearance to the smocking under the smooth collar, and Margaret’s dress clearly shows cross-hatched tooling that suggests a plaid fabric
They are “placed” on a three-tiered shelf that does not extend all the way across, the bodies ending above the waist on wide bases. The shape of the whole frame is rectangular with a gently arched top, decorated with a thin architectural patterned molding under a narrow rounded band that extends a little at the edges past the vertical borders into which they fade at the top, leaving the side edges with only a slightly raised line. There are three 4-sided rosettes at the top center and corners, the triplet repeated in the molding of the base.
The ground is mostly smooth with some horizontally combed tool markings at the lower side edges and behind Silvia’s head and body with smoothed-out horizontal combings all across. The markings at the top under the molding are vertical and short with the suggestion of a pattern of squares.
In composition, the figures and shelf are slightly off center, but the faces form the center and the focus of attention. There is high contrast in the shadows and highlights of the faces. The hair is clearly drawn in the details, and the dresses tactile with the texture of the crisp smocked cotton.
There is high contrast between the details of the hair above, the dresses below and the faces, with the smoothness of the planes of their faces, necks and collars framing them. There is a repeating rhythm of the parallel faces, the matching collars and the textured bases formed by the two bodies, anchored in the width of the bodies where they meet the shelf on which they sit. St.Gaudens said that the ground is part of the composition, here there are elements of an etching in the ground treatment which effectively unite the figures within the whole.
The children are beautifully depicted in a high contrast low relief. The whole is clearly influenced by the St. Gaudens style. Compare to The Children of Prescott Hall Butler.
(Ref. p191 in catalog of his work in publication by Musée Augustins, Toulouse.) In an entry initialed E.H. is the last paragraph:
“Always in his portraits of children, Saint-Gaudens emphasizes the round cheeks and prominent upper lip. We cannot help but be touched by the freshness of this double portrait, which makes us forget the worldly nature of the commission.”
There was great controversy in the late 1800’s about the subject of “finish.” Rodin would leave his carvings in this state, the figures or faces emerging from rough marble. In the days of Augustus St. Gaudens, the subject was hotly debated regarding the techniques he and other sculptors used in relief carving that were “sketchy” in appearance, more like paintings in clay. St. Gaudens argued passionately about his view that a piece of art need not be polished to be finished and that a sketchy appearance didn’t mean that the piece was incomplete. In his opinion , a work should be “judged on its character or effect, rather than on its degree of technical completion.” And that it “did not have to reach of point of belabored smoothness or detail to be worthy.” (Tolles) In that regard, look at the dresses of the Evans girls. They are freely modeled without regard for he details. The character of the children is the thing that is important, and here the point is clearly demonstrated. Allen’s compositional refinements here demonstrate his masterful touch.