During the early decades of the nineteenth century, the American public was fascinated by a sense of fancy and imagination that came to infuse the decorative arts. This delicate and frothy portrait, executed in opaque and translucent watercolors that create an evanescent beauty, captures the essence of this taste. While the portrait relies upon the conventional composition of column and curtain, with view behind, the multiple transparent layers create an effect of gossamer fragility very different from its stolid oil-on-canvas counterparts. Nevertheless, the watercolor successfully fulfills its function as an identifiable and specific portrait.
Posed against an imaginary riverscape, Mrs. Keyser is composed of a symphony of curvilinear and triangular abstractions. The billowing sleeves play against the curves of her wasp waist. Her refined, oval face is poised on the point of the triangle formed by her shoulders and neck and is framed by the repeating circles of her bonnet. Horizontal elements in her deep bodice—rows of lace on the surface, the dark edge of her neckline beneath—form continuous lines across the picture plane, merging with the windowsill and receding into the viaduct in the distance. A bright tabby cat rests on her lap, held by impossibly small hands, and a ribbon of space appears between her sleeve and waist, reminiscent of the technique employed by Samuel Addison and Ruth Whittier Shute. In fact, Mrs. Keyser belongs to the tradition of large-format watercolor portraiture practiced in New England by artists such as the Shutes and Mary B. Tucker. The Southern belle in this watercolor, however, appears to be from a wealthier family than many of her New England counterparts, who were frequently young women working in New England textile mills.
The given name of this elegant woman has not been determined, though she is identified as Mrs. Keyser of Eutaw Street in a pencil inscription on the back of the frame. While various members of the Keyser family are listed at addresses of Eutaw Street in Baltimore through 1859, none appears to be a likely candidate as the subject of this watercolor. The framer's label on the back is from M. [Minet or Minnett] Barrett & Bro., carvers and gilders who operated at 82 North Howard Street in Baltimore through 1870.
Stacy C. Hollander, "Mrs. Keyser," in American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 397.