Musée No:792.015

Musée No:792.015

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Artist: William Dunlap
Date: c1810

William Dunlap (1766 –1839) was, in fact, a pioneer of American theatre. He was a producer, playwright, and actor, as well as a historian and artist, despite losing an eye in childhood. He managed two of New York City's earliest and most prominent theatres. In 1783, he painted a portrait of George Washington, which is now owned by the United States Senate. In his lifetime he produced more than sixty plays, most of which were adaptations or translations from French or German works although a few were original, based on American themes and had American characters. He is best known for his three-volume History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, published in 1834. It is now an invaluable source of information about artists, collecting, and artistic life generally in the colonial and federal periods. In 1825 Dunlap was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design, and taught at its school.  Theatre turns out to be the link between the artist and the subject.

Initially, I could find no information about the beautiful sitter, Mary Fairlie Cooper. In the old days I would have been stuck but with a little digging (what did we do before Google and the ’findagrave’ site?) a fascinating story appeared. She was born in Albany in 1790 and died young, aged 42, after a “protracted illness”. Her father was a patriot of Revolution, Major James Fairlie, who "zealously supported the cause of liberty through our whole struggle for independence." She was married to Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, “Tragedian”, a Londoner who became America's first prominent Shakespearean actor and the first idol of American theatre. The Coopers' daughter, Priscilla, married Robert Tyler, whose father, John, became the 10th President of the United States. When her mother in law died, Priscilla became the White House hostess and First Lady, only a ‘silhouette” portrait of her exists in The White House Gallery of First Ladies.

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