JOHN WOLLASTON (about 1710–about 1775)]
Portrait of Isabella Morris, about 1755
Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25 1/8 in.
EXHIBITED: Museum of the City of New York, December 16, 1932–January 23, 1933, “Christmas Exhibition”
EX COLL.: the sitter, Isabella Morris Wilkins (1748–1810); to her daughter, Charlotte Wilkins Hoffman (1787–1844); to her son, William Bayard Hoffman ((1817–1880); to his daughter, Mary U[lshoeffer] Hoffman (1868–1951), New York; to her cousin, William Hoffman Benjamin (1910–1997); to his wife, Joan Ellet Benjamin; to a New York City institution, until 2018
Isabella Morris was a daughter of Lewis Morris II (1698–1762) of Morrisania, the Bronx, born to his second wife, Sarah H. Gouverneur (1714–1786). Her grandfather, Lewis Morris (1671–1746), had served as the royal governor of the colony of New Jersey from 1738 until 1746. Her older half-brother, Lewis Morris, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, while her younger brother, Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816), signed the Articles of Confederation and took an active role at the convention that drafted the American constitution. He later held European diplomatic posts and represented New York in the United States Senate. Isabella was a child when the English painter, John Wollaston, arrived in New York from London. Her family, prosperous and politically prominent, were precisely the kind of clients Wollaston sought for his new world commissions.
The identity of the sitter in this Portrait of Isabella Morris has never been in question. The painting descended in Morris’s family for over two hundred years. What was lost over the years was the identification of the artist. When the work was lent by Morris’s great granddaughter, Mary U. Hoffman, for exhibition at the New-York Historical Society in 1932–33, it was attributed (likely because he was the best-known American Colonial portraitist) to John Singleton Copley. That attribution was challenged by curators and scholars who pointed out that neither dates nor style supported the Copley identification. The painting shows a girl estimated to be between four and seven years old. Isabella Morris was therefore painted at the latest by 1755, when Copley was only seventeen years old, and sixteen years away from his first visit to New York City. Stylistic analysis of the painting combined with historical evidence, pointed to John Wollaston.
In 1762, when she was sixteen years old, Isabella Morris married the Rev. Isaac Wilkins (1743–1830). Wilkins, born in Kingston, Jamaica, was raised in New York and graduated from Columbia College. Because Isabella Morris was a woman, the known details of her biography are those of her husband. With inherited money from family plantations in Jamaica, Wilkins purchased land in what is now called Castle Hill in the Bronx (then Westchester) where they farmed. Isaac Wilkins served in the Colonial Legislature while becoming increasingly drawn to a career in the ministry. Wilkins was a committed loyalist (as was his wife’s mother, Sarah Gouverneur Morris). In 1775, the Wilkins family left for England, but returned to New York during the period of British occupation from 1776 to 1783. When peace in 1783 ratified the victory of the patriot cause, the family removed to Nova Scotia, where Isaac Wilkins served as a judge and member of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly from 1785 until 1793. By 1798, the family had returned to New York and Wilkins was ordained first a deacon, then a Priest in the Episcopal Church. From 1799 until his death in 1830, Wilkins presided over St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. During these years of upset and upheaval, Isabella Morris Wilkins bore twelve children: Martin (1764); Sarah (1766); Lewis Morris (1768); Joanna (1769); Isabella (1771); Isaac (1773); Mary (1775); Catherine (1777); Charles Williams (1780); Thomas (1781); Euphemia (1785); and Charlotte (1787). When the family moved back to New York, they returned to Morrisania and Castle Hill (now in the Borough of the Bronx), where their families continued to hold substantial estates. At least one of their children, Lewis Morris Wilkins (1768–1848) remained in Nova Scotia where he and his sons had political careers. While it remains possible that a search for surviving family correspondence might reveal more of the substance of Isabella Morris’s life, at present her historical footprint lies in the known facts of her husband’s life, in the genealogical record of her descendants; and in John Wollaston’s image of Isabella as a child. Both Isabella and her husband, along with three of their children, and numerous other family members, are buried in the graveyard at St. Peter’s in the Bronx.
This portrait descended to Isabella Morris Wilkins’ daughter, Charlotte Wilkins Hoffman (1787–1844), to her son, William Bayard Hoffman (1817–1880), and thence to his daughter Mary U. Hoffman, Isabella’s great-granddaughter. When that line ended without direct issue, it passed to the family of another of Charlotte Hoffman’s children, William Bayard Hoffman’s older sister, Charlotte Wilkins Hoffman Prime ((1808–1892), to her grandson and Isabella Morris’s great-great grandson, William Hoffman Benjamin (1910–1997).