Classics · writing

Covers: Mansfield Park

It turns out that the portrait on my Mansfield Park cover is the half-sister of the one who adorns Pride and Prejudice.

I wanted something not too fancy for Fanny Price. I found the simplicity of Gilbert Stuart’s 1804 portrait of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (Mrs. Lawrence Lewis). Known as Nelly, she, too, is written of in the National Gallery’s American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, at pages 237-40.

When she was two and after her father died, she became a ward of George and Martha Washington. She was Martha Washington’s granddaughter and George Washington’s step-granddaughter and adopted daughter. In 1799, she married the Washingtons’ nephew Lawrence Lewis.

The painting shows her to be in the second year of mourning, based on the color of her day dress. In addition to suffering mightily from the death of Martha Washington in 1802, she’d also lost two children. In December of 1804, the year in which the portrait was done, she wrote a friend:

We have both experienced the most severe distress in being deprived of affectionate parents, whose loss can never be repaired. In addition to this, I have lost two children, one of them the most lovely & engaging little Girl I ever saw. I have had very bad health since my marriage until the two last years, I have now recover’d my health, and have two charming children.

In its description, the National Gallery concludes as to Gilbert Stuart:

Stuart’s particular sensitivity may reflect his own ties to Nelly and her family. When he painted President and Mrs. Washington in Philadelphia in the 1790s, Nelly accompanied her grandparents to his Germantown studio for their sittings. The contrast between the vibrant girl whom Stuart had known in Philadelphia and the melancholy young woman he saw in Washington seems to have made an impact on the observant artist.

Nelly Custis Lewis died in 1852.

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