Treasure Chest Tuesday: 150 year-old Portraits of my Stuart Ancestors

1952-13-4 William Rasin Stuart (1780-1853) Unsigned; attributed to Thomas Sully. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

1952-13-3 Alexander Stuart (1812-1853). Unsigned, attributed to Thomas Sully. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Above are portraits of my third great-grandfather, William Rasin Stuart and his son, my great, great-uncle, Alexander Stuart housed at the Maryland Historical Society.

As remarkable as the paintings themselves is the fact that we’re even aware of their existence.  Here is  how we came to find out about them.

At the beginning of the year, my cousin and I began reading the Stuart papers, a collection of William Rasin Stuart’s letters and spiritual meditations that our genealogy buddy, Antoinette Lee informed us about.  This enormous tome of over 600 pages is a treasure trove of information about Stuart and his family. In letters to his children, most often my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart, the elder Stuart details his time as a whig in the Maryland Senate where he served as president. He later laments his reversal of fortune when ideological differences get him canned from this beloved job. He speaks longingly of a place called Denby in Maryland where his wife Ariana Frazier is buried with their child Charles and other generations of their family and pleads for my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart to buy it for him. William Rasin must have lost or sold Denby during his financial difficulties. In a heartfelt plea, William Rasin writes, ” I desire my body to be placed by the side of your dear mother,” but in later letters its clear that the colonel doesn’t buy Denby for him. As William Rasin ages, his financial situation worsens. He spends the last decade of his life living in other people’s homes, sometimes friend’s or landlord’s, other times his childrens. In 1853 while living in New Orleans with his son, Alexander, William Rasin dies of yellow fever.  Alexander dies of the same disease just a few months later.

With all these compelling hints at hand, my cousin Monique and I tried to find this place, Denby that had once been the Stuart home as well as any other information about this branch of the family.  Monique put “William R. Stuart” (we didn’t know his middle name then) along with his death and birth date into the search engine, and it spit back several entries  at the Maryland Historical Society. Not only did the names and dates match up with the information we’d found in the Stuart papers, but the  donors of the portraits, The Misses Sutro, were familiar as well.  We knew that William Rasin had a  granddaughter named Mrs. Otto Sutro because we’d read about her in a Baltimore Sun newspaper account of her sister’s marriage to a Mexican editor. Her sister, Tilly Handy met her groom at “the house of Col. William R. Stuart, a wealthy broker,” also, Tilly’s uncle, the article explains.

With the help of art historian, Joel Brink and the assistance of the staff at the Historical Society, we now have digital pictures of these amazing portraits, unsigned but attributed to renown American artist, Thomas Sully, painted over 150 years ago.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Treasure Chest Tuesday: 150 year-old Portraits of my Stuart Ancestors

  1. Great work! I’m speechless. The paintings and the story are stunning.

  2. Another wonderful story from your research. I really like the photos, as well, from Maryland, where some of my ancestors lived, as well. Thank you, so much, for continuing to share these findings.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Bill 😉

    http://drbilltellsancestorstories.blogspot.com/
    Author of “Back to the Homeplace”
    and “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”

  3. Deb

    The portraits are STUNNING!! So glad that you shared them with us.

  4. What wonderful portraits and another great read! How awesome that you were able to get copies.

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