THE EYE OF THEODOSIA BURR: Aaron Burr, his daughter Theodosia, and Kingston painter John Vanderlyn
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
One of the most interesting objects on display at the Senate House State Historic Site Museum in Kingston, New York, is a miniature painting of a single female eye: The Eye of Theodosia Burr. This delicate image symbolizes the intersecting stories of three New Yorkers: the painter John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), his patron, Aaron Burr, Jr. (1756-1836), and his subject, Burr’s beloved daughter Theodosia (1783-1813). All three stories represent different degrees of unfulfilled promise and unhappy endings.
The most familiar name of these three is that of Aaron Burr. Like Benedict Arnold, about whom I wrote in a previous blog, Burr is considered one of the great villains of New York history—most famous for killing his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Burr was a clever, cultured, and well-educated man who grew up in New Jersey (his father was the second president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and his maternal grandfather was the famous minister Jonathan Edwards). Orphaned as a toddler and raised by relatives, Burr was admitted to college at the age of 13, and studied theology and law after his graduation. He joined the Continental Army in the early days of the Revolution, traveling with Benedict Arnold through the Maine wilderness for the attack on Quebec (see blog from October 17th, Benedict Arnold’s Boot, Part 1).
Earning a reputation for courage, Burr was named to George Washington’s staff, but left after only two weeks to take a more active part in the fighting, eventually serving on several different fronts in and around New York City. In addition to his military exploits, Burr was well-known for enjoying the finer things, and as a ladies’ man. Rather surprisingly, he married the older widow of a British officer (and mother of five children), noted for her intelligence and wit rather than her beauty. Theodosia Bartow Prevost and Burr had single surviving child: Theodosia, born in Albany in 1783. The family moved to New York City, where Burr became a prominent lawyer and entered politics. It appears that Alexander Hamilton became his determined enemy in 1791, when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler for the position of U.S. Senator from New York State. As the nation split into rival political parties during Washington’s administration, Hamilton became a Federalist (like Washington) while Burr took the side of the Democrat-Republicans (led by Jefferson).
Theodosia Burr was raised to be an exceptional young woman. Her father supervised her education even before her mother’s death, which took place when Theodosia was just eleven. Burr was a great admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, and introduced his daughter to her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, now considered one of the earliest statements of feminist ideals. Theodosia studied Greek, Latin, German, classical literature and arithmetic as well as subjects ten regarded as more feminine – French, music, and dancing. As a teenager, Theodosia became her father’s hostess at their mansion Richmond Hill (located southwest of Greenwich Village), where she once was called upon to entertain the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant in her father’s absence. In 1801, at the age of 18, she married Joseph Alston, a wealthy planter from South Carolina; they were one of the first couples to honeymoon at Niagara Falls. In the same year, her father began his term as Vice President of the United States. (In fact, he and Jefferson, both members of the same party, won an equal number of votes for the presidency, but Hamilton’s Federalists swung the election against Burr.) Theodosia remained close to her father with whom she exchanged regular letters and visits. She named her only child, a son, Aaron Burr Alston.
Vanderlyn was born in Kingston to a family that was comfortable but not extremely wealthy. After receiving a classical education at the Kingston Academy, in 1792 the young man was apprenticed to a print dealer in New York City. There he met Gilbert Stuart (now most famous his portrait of George Washington’s). Working in Stuart’s studio in 1794, Vanderlyn came to the attention of Aaron Burr. Burr was so impressed by the young man’s talent that he supported him financially while he continued his studies under Gilbert Stuart (who had moved to Philadelphia). In 1796, Burr sent Vanderlyn to France, making him the first American to study art in Paris rather than London. Trained in the Neo-Classical style, Vanderlyn also became the first American to exhibit at the prestigious French Salon.
When he returned to the United States in 1801, Vanderlyn lived with the Burrs, and Burr’s position as Vice President offered him an introduction elite clients. He painted several portraits, including the matched set of Aaron and Theodosia (1802) reproduced here. Burr also encouraged the young man to visit and paint Niagara Falls; he became the first professional American artist to do so. However, the prints of these paintings that Vanderlyn later commissioned in Europe did not sell as well as he had hoped; in fact, this investment was a business failure.
Vanderlyn returned to Europe in 1803 for a project funded by the Livingstons (Edward was then Mayor of New York, Robert was the United States Minister to France), selecting artwork for the newly formed New York Academy of Art. When funds for the project were cut off suddenly, Vanderlyn turned to history painting, traveling to England and Rome as well as Paris, and in 1808 becoming the first American to win a prize at the Paris Salon.
Meanwhile, Burr’s political career faltered after his single term as Vice President. Jefferson and the Democrat-Republicans distrusted him because they felt that he had attempted to steal the presidency during the electoral tie with Jefferson, and did not select him again as the Vice Presidential candidate. Returning to New York, Burr ran for Governor but lost by a wide margin; after the campaign it was reported in the press that Hamilton had been heard to express a “despicable opinion” of Burr. Burr demanded that Hamilton retract his insult; Hamilton refused, and matters escalated until they met in their famous duel on July 11, 1804. Historians disagree about exactly what happened and why, but not the final result, which was Hamilton’s death the following day. Burr was charged with murder in both New York (where dueling was a capital offense) and New Jersey, where the duel took place. He escaped to Theodosia in South Carolina and charges were eventually dropped. In fact, he returned to Washington D.C. to finish out his term as Vice President, the last of his elected offices.
It was not the end of scandal for Aaron Burr, however. In 1807 he was accused of plotting to set up a new, independent nation in southwestern North America, carved out of the Louisiana Purchase and Spanish Mexico (an area not yet part of the United States). Burr was tried for treason, but acquitted. Nevertheless, he was unpopular and in badly in debt; he fled to Europe. Once there he was taken in by Vanderlyn, who loyally stood by and supported his former patron. The artist was doing well, and in 1809 embarked on what would become his most famous work, Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos.
In 1812 the Burr family was struck by tragedy. Aaron Burr Alston, Theodosia’s ten-year-old son, died of a fever. On her way to be reunited with her father, who had just returned to New York, Theodosia Burr Alston’s ship disappeared. Legends abound as to her fate; the most common theories are that she was either shipwrecked or captured by pirates and murdered.
In 1815 Vanderlyn returned to the United States and exhibited Ariadne, one of the first classical nudes painted by an American artist, along with paintings that had been well received in Europe. Yet, perhaps because of his association with Aaron Burr, he received no major commissions. His grand panorama of the gardens of Versailles (painted in New York 1818-19) was exhibited in a special rotunda in New York City and later around the country, but did not appeal to the public. (This monumental work is now exhibited in a special room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.)
Aaron Burr lived on in New York City where he returned to the practice of law. In 1833, he married a notorious widow, Eliza Jumel, to gain access to her fortune. She sued him for divorce soon after, the same year he suffered a stroke. Their divorce became final on the very day in 1836 that Burr died on Staten Island.
Vanderlyn never won the fame and fortune he hoped for. He finally received a federal commission for a portrait of George Washington in 1834 (now hanging in the House of Representatives), and later one for the grand historical scene he had always dreamed of painting. Commissioned in 1839, The Landing of Christopher Columbus (for the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol), was painted in Paris. According to a young American artist who visited him there, Vanderlyn was “an old man, broken in spirits and health,” who “mourned over his lost youth, saying the vigor and strength he could have once given to his work was gone.” Completed in 1846, Columbus was Vanderlyn’s last major commission. He died in Kingston six years later, bitter, poor and neglected.
New York stories do not always end happily. History has not been kind to these three New Yorkers of great promise: Aaron Burr is often demonized, Vanderlyn remains obscure, and Theodosia Burr Alston was largely unknown before recent interest in her potential as a feminist model. What ties these lives together for me as New York stories is the theme of ambition—striving for greatness, though in the end falling short.
There is another New York association for Aaron Burr—perhaps the most important. Burr was one of the primary founders of Tammany, the political machine that later became infamous for its Gilded Age excesses under Boss Tweed. The original Tammany Society, founded in 1789, was used by Burr to organize and exert Democratic-Republican power in New York City and State. In the nineteenth century, Tammany became associated with corruption, the spoils system, Jacksonian democracy, and the Democratic party, and produced such New York leaders as Martin Van Buren and Al Smith.
One final recommendation: New Yorker Gore Vidal (born at West Point, 1925-2012) gives us a memorable alternative interpretation of Aaron Burr’s life and character in his brilliant novel, Burr (1973).
Benjamin Champney, Sixty Years Memories of Art and Artists (Woburn, 1900), quoted in Kenneth C. Lindsay, “John Vanderlyn in Retrospect”, American Art Journal , Vol. 7, No. 2 (Nov., 1975), pp. 79-90
“John Vanderlyn,” Early American Paintings, Worcester Art Museum;
“John Vanderlyn,” The Senate House, Kingston, New York;
RECENT STUDIES OF AARON AND THEODOSIA BURR:
Fallen Founder, The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg (Penguin, 2008)
Theodosia Burr Alston, Portrait of a Prodigy, by Richard Cote (Corintian, 2002)