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ADVENTURES AND ACHIEVEMENTS
A MERICANS ABROAD.
A COLLECTION OF INTERESTING MISCELLANIES.
" LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,” is a chivalrous expression, inasmuch as the word which indicates the gentler sex first drops from the lips. In accordance with the idea upon which this custom is founded, viz : prior attention to that important part of creation who alone furnish mothers, wives, and sisters--we begin this article with an account of a lady, one, too, of the “strong-minded” sort, who was fully capable of taking care of herself in all situations.
ADVENTURES OF THE ECCENTRIC AND PATRIOTIC FEMALE ARTIST, PATIENCE
This extraordinary woman, whose name belongs to the history of American Art, and whose patriotism should make her known to the American people, vas born in Bordentown, New Jersey, in the year 1725, and, like West, among a sect who eschewed images or pictures, for her parents were also Quakers. Her maiden name was Lovell, and at twenty-three years of age she married Joseph Wright, who died in 1769.
Dunlap, in his “ History of the Arts of Design,” gives this account of her: “She made her earliest attempts at molding before she had any works of art. From childhood, the dough intended for the oven, or the clay found near the house, assumed in her hands somewhat the semblance of a man, and, soon the likenesses of the individuals with whom she associated. Before the year 1772, she had made herself famous for likenesses in wax, in the cities of her native country, and when a widow with three children, was enabled to seek more extensive fame, and more splendid fortune in the metropolis of Great Britain. There is ample testimony in the English periodicals of the time, that her work was considered of an extraordinary kind : and her talent for observation and conversation--for gaining knowledge and eliciting information, and for communicating her stores, whether original or acquired, gained her the attention and friendship of many distinguished men of the day. As she retained an ardent love for her country, and entered into the feelings of her injured countrymen during the war of the revolution, she used the information she obtained by giving warning of the intentions of their enemies, and especially corresponding with Benjamin Franklin, when he resided in Paris, having become intimate with
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him in London. I have before me an engraving published in 1765, representing Mrs. Wright at full length in the act of modeling a bust of a gentleman. In the London Magazine of that year, she is styled the Promethean modeler. In that work it is said, 'In her very infancy she discovered striking genius, and began with making faces with new bread and putty, to such excellence that she was advised to try her skill in wax.' Her likenesses of the King, Queen, Lords Chatham and Temple, Messrs. Barre, Wilkes and others, attracted universal admiration. The above writer says, 'Her natural abilities are surpassing, and had a liberal and extensive education been added to her innate qualities, she had been a prodigy. She has an eye of that quick and brilliant water, that it penetrates and darts through the person it looks on; and practice has made her capable of distinguishing the character and dispositions of her visitors, so that she is very rarely mistaken, even in the minute point of manners ; much more so in the general cast of character. The only work that I distinctly recollect of Mrs. Wright's, is the full length of the great Lord Chatham, as it stood in Westminster Abbey, in 1784, inclosed in a glass case. Anecdotes are related of the eccentricities of Mrs. Wright. Her manners were not those of a courtier. She once had the ear and favor of George the Third, but lost it by scolding him for sanctioning the American war. She was in. timate with Mr. West and his family; and the beautiful form and face of her younger daughter are frequently to be found in his historical compositions.
In 1781, Mrs. Wright went to Paris. Her son, Joseph Wright, followed in 1782, and remained in France during part of the year; and I have before me several of Mrs. Wright's letters to him, replete with affection and good sense, written after her return to London: and likewise letters to him in 1783, written to meet him in America.
In 1785, Mrs. Wright sent the following characteristic letter to Mr. Jefferson, then in Paris.
• LONDON, at the Wax-Works, Aug. 14, 1785. HONORED SIR-I had the pleasure to hear that my son, Joseph Wright, had painted the best likeness of our HERO Washington, of any painter in America; and my friends are anxious that I should make a likeness, a bust in wax, to be placed in the state-house, or some public building that may be erected by congress. The flattering letters from gentlemen of distinguished virtues and rank, and one from that general himself, wherein he says, ' he shall think himself happy to have his bust done by Mrs. Wright, whose uncommon talents, etc., make me happy in the prospect of seeing him in my own country.
I most sincerely wish not only to make the likeness of Washington, but of those FIVE gentlemen who assisted at the signing of the treaty of peace that put an end to so bloody and dreadful a war. The more public the honors bestowed on such men by their country, the better. To shame the English king, I would go to any trouble and expense to add my mite in the stock of honor due to Adams, Jefferson, and others, to send to America; and I will, if it is thought proper to pay my expense of traveling to Paris, come myself and model the likeness of Mr. Jefferson ; and at the same time see the picture, and, if possible by this painting, which is said to be
60 like him, make a likeness of the general. I wish likewise to consult with you, how best we may honor our country, by holding up the likenesses of her eminent men, either in painting or wax-work. A statue in marble is already ordered, and an artist (Houdon) gone to Philadelphia to begin the work. This is as I wished and hoped.'
The letter concludes by hinting the danger of sending Washington's picture to London, from the enmity of the governinent, and the espionage of the police ; which she says has all the 'folly, without the ability of the French.' She subscribes herself 'Patience Wright.' In the same year, this extraordinary woman died.”
To this account from Dunlap, we annex some amusing facts and anecdotes in regard to her, from the "Memoirs of Elkanah Watson,” who first met her in Paris, in 1781.
"I came oddly in contact with the eccentric Mrs. Wright, on my arrival in Paris from Nantes. Giving orders from the balcony of the Hotel d'York, to my English servant, I was assailed by a powerful female voice, crying out from an upper story :
• Who are you ?--an AMERICAN, , I hope !
In two minutes she came blustering down stairs, with the familiarity of an old acquaintance. We were soon on the most excellent terms. I discovered that she was in the habit of daily intercourse with Franklin, and was visited and caressed by all the respectable Americans in Paris. The wild flights of her powerful mind stamped originality on all her acts and language. She was a tall and athletic figure ; walked with a firm, bold step, and as erect as an Indian. Her complexion was somewhat sallowher cheek-bones high-her face furrowed, and her olive eyes keen, piercing and expressive. Her sharp glance was appalling; it had almost the wildness of the maniac.
The vigor and originality of her conversation corresponded with her appearance and manners. She would utter language in her incessant volubility, as if ungünscious to whom directed, that would put her hearers to the blush. She apparently possessed the utmost simplicity of heart and character.
With the head of wax upon her lap, she would mold the most accurate likenesses, by the mere force of a retentive recollection of the traits and lines of the countenance; she would form her likenesses by the manipulation of the wax with her thumb and finger. While thus engaged, her strong mind poured forth an uninterrupted torrent of wild thought, and andotes and reminiscences of men and events. She went to London about the year 1767, near the period of Franklin's appearance there as the agent of Pennsylvania. The peculiarity of her character, and the excellence of her wax figures, made her rooms in Pall Mall a fashionable lounging-place for the nobility and distinguished men of England. Here her deep penetration and sagacity, cloaked by her apparent simplicity of purpose, enabled her to gather many facts and secrets important to 'DEAR AMERICA '-her uniform expression in reference to her native land, which she dearly loved.
She was a genuine republican and ardent whig. The king and queen often visited her rooms: they would induce her to work upon her heads, regardless of their presence. She would often, as if forgetting herself, address them as George and Charlotte. This fact she often mentioned to me herself. While in England, she communicated much important information to Franklin, and remained in London until 1775 or 1776, engaged in that kind of intercourse with him and the American government, by which she was placed in positions of extreme hazard.
I saw her frequently in Paris, in 1781, and in various parts of England, from 1782 to 1784. Her letters followed me in my travels through Europe. I had assisted her at Paris; had extended aid to her son at Nantes, and given him a free passage in one of our ships to America. Her gratitude was unbounded. This son was a painter and artist of some eminence, and in 1784 took a model of Washington's head in plaster. I heard from Washington himself an amusing anecdote connected with this bust. In January, 1785, I enjoyed the inestimable privilege of a visit under his roof, in the absence of all visitors. Among the many interesting subjects which engaged our conversation in a long winter evening (the most valuable of my life), in which his dignified lady and Miss Custis united, he amused us by relating the incident of the taking of this model. Wright came to Mt. Vernon,' the general remarked, with the singular request, that I should permit him to take a model of my face in plaster of Paris, to which I consented with some reluctance. He oiled my features over, and placing me flat upon my back, upon a cot, proceeded to daub my face with the plaster. While in this ridiculous attitude, Mrs. Washington entered the room, and seeing my face thus overspread with the plaster, involuntarily exclaimed. Her cry excited in me a disposition to smile, which gave my mouth a slight twist, or compression of the lips, that is now observable in the busts Wright afterward made. These are nearly the words of Washington.
Some time after my acquaintance with Mrs. Wright commenced, she informed me that an eminent female chemist of Paris had written her a note, that she would make her a visit at twelve o'clock the next day, and announced, also, that she could not speak English. Mrs. Wright desired me to act as interpreter. At the appointed hour, the thundering of a carriage in the court-yard announced the arrival of the French lady. She entered with much grace, in which Mrs. W. was no match for her. She was old, with a sharp nose with broad patches of vermillion spread over the deep furrows of her cheeks. I was placed in a chair between the two originals. Their tongues flew with velocity, the one in English and the other in French, and neither understanding a word the other uttered. I saw no possibility of interpreting two such volleys of words, and at length abruptly commanded SILENCE FOR A MOMENT.
I asked each, 'Do you understand ? •Not a word,' said Mrs. Wright. 'N'importe,' replied the chemist, bounding from her clair in the midst of the floor, and dropping a low curtsy-was off. What an old painted fool,' said Mrs. W., in anger. It was evident that this visit was not intended for an interchange of sentiment, but a mere act of civility-a call.
I employed Mrs. W. to make the head' of Franklin, which was often the source of much amusement to me. After it was completed, both being invited to dine with Franklin, I conveyed her to Passy in my carriage, she bearing the head upon her lap. No sooner in the presence of the doctor, than she had placed one head beside the other. There !" she exclaimed, are twin brothers ! The likeness was truly admirable, and at the suggestion of Mrs. Wright, to give it more effect, Franklin sent me a suit of silk clothes he wore in 1778. Many years afterward, the head was broken :n Albany, and the clothes I presented to the 'Historical Society of Massachusetts.'
An adventure occurred to Mrs. Wright, in connection with this head, ludicrous in the highest degree, and although almost incredible, is literally true. After the head had been modeled, she walked out to Passy, carrying in a napkin, in order to compare it with the original. In returning in the evening, she was stopped at the barrier in course, to be searched for contraband goods; but as her mind was as free as her native American air, she knew no restraint, nor the reason why she was detained. She resisted the attempt to examine her bundle, and broke out in a rage of fury. The officers were amazed, as no explanation, in the absence of an interpreter, could take place. She was compelled, however, to yield to power. The bundle was opened, and, to the astonishment of the officials, exhibited the head of a dead man, as appeared to them in the obscurity of the night. They closed the bundle without further examination, believing, as they afterward assured me, that she was an escaped maniac, who had committed murder, and was about concealing the head of her victim.
They were determined to convey her to the police station, when she made them comprehend her entreaties to be taken to the Hotel d'York. I was in my room, and hearing in the passage a great uproar, and Mrs. W's voice pitched upon a higher key than usual, I rushed out, and found her in a terrible rage, her fine eye flashing. I thrust myself between her and the officers, exclaiming, 'Au, mon Dieu, qu'est ce qu'el y-a ? An explanation ensued. All except Mrs. W. were highly amused at the singularity and absurdity of the affair.
The head and clothes I transmitted to Nantes--they were the instruments of many frolics, not inappropriate to my youth, but perhaps it is hardly safe to advert to them in my age. A few I will venture to relate. On my arrival at Nantes, I caused the head to be properly adjusted to the dress, which was arranged in a natural shape and dimensions. I had the figure placed in the corner of a large room, near a closet, and behind a table. Before him I laid an open atlas, his arm resting upon the table, and mathematical instruments strewn upon it. A handkerchief was thrown over the arm stumps, wires were extended to the closet, by which means the body could be elevated or depressed, and placed in various positions. Thus arranged, some ladies and gentlemen were invited to pay their respects to Dr. Franklin, by candlelight. For a moment, they were completely deceived, and all profoundly bowed and curtsied, which was reciprocated by the figure. Not a word being uttered, the trick was soon revealed.
A report soon circulated that Doctor Franklin was at Monsieur Watson's sour l'Isle de Prydeau.? At eleven o'clock the next morning, the mayor of Nantes came in full dress, to call on the renowned philosopher. Cossoul, my worthy partner, being acquainted with the mayor, favored the