Artful Conversations || The Mysterious Lady from Surinam

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  • National Art Education Association

    The Mysterious Lady from SurinamAuthor(s): Ralph G. Bennett and Karen A. HamblenSource: Art Education, Vol. 48, No. 2, Artful Conversations (Mar., 1995), pp. 6-11Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3193507 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 17:27

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  • SPECIAL

    Figure 1. Sara Marcus Samson, painting, 1851.

    BY RALPH G. BENNETT AND

    KAREN A. HAMBLEN

    ART EDUCATION / MARCH 1995

    5

    ss

    ~~~- I 1 or I .- . v I I I I II I . X

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  • Figure 2. Rachell (Shelley) Grace Gamperts Bennett.

    PROLOGUE BY HAMBLEN While I was the Senior Editor of Studies in Art Education, Dr. Ralph Bennett, a medical doctor, sent me several

    papers that dealt with his personal interest in art and his investigations of the origins and meanings of art objects acquired through inheritance and from his worldwide travels. Although his papers did not fit the usual research formats, his ideas and experiences provided a wonderful view of some of the most essential reasons many of us teach art-to foster a deep appreciation of the visual arts that extends beyond the classroom, to develop a curiosity for the many stories and interpretations that can be found in art, and to experience and enjoy the insights art study can provide.

    In the following narrative titled 'The Mysterious Lady from Surinam," Dr. Bennett describes his personal and highly variegated journey to find the meaning of a family portrait. Art educators have long proposed that the study of art history go beyond the memorization of names, dates, and places and the analysis of artistic styles (Erickson, 1988,1992; Fitzpatrick, 1992). Dr. Bennetft's investigation indicates a wealth of possibilities and the many rewards

    art history study can offer students, from young ages through adulthood. In the epilogue, I try to summarize some aspects that have specific relevance for art instruction.

    THE NARRATIVE BY BENNETT My interest in collecting Dutch antiques arose

    out of my attempt to trace down the genealogical w 4 9 a \ 3 ) s */*^^ s ^ ^t/^C. s roots of my wife Shelley's family. In the course of

    researching her family tree, we made contact by mail with a number of distant cousins who now

    MARCH 1995 / ART EDUCATION

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  • live throughout the United States, Holland, and elsewhere in the world. One of these cousins was an elderly woman named Germaine who was liv- ing on a small income on an island in the British West Indies, and whom I "dis- covered" in 1981. We exchanged Christmas cards with our photos on them. When I inquired if she had any heirlooms from the family's past, she responded that she had boxes full of "treasures" in storage left by her father. She was an only child, so she had inher- ited everything. She would gladly sell the items in her possession, as she had no one to leave them to anyhow and she was in need of cash. This was the germ from which my collection of Dutch art (from the 17th, 18th, and 19th cen- turies) was born.

    I started sending Germaine checks in the mail, and boxes full of family memorabilia started arriving. One day I received a letter from her saying that while unpacking crates containing her father's possessions she had come across "a real art masterpiece." 'This is a beautiful portrait," she wrote, and she would not sell it-because she insisted on giving it to us. She explained that she wanted this long-lost heirloom to reside in a place where it would be appreciated and enjoyed. Besides that, Germaine said she had another reason for feeling that this piece should belong to Shelley and me, and that we would understand why when we saw it.

    I felt overwhelmed by her generosi- ty and eagerly anticipated the arrival of the painting. Finally, the shipping crate containing the art piece came. When I unwrapped the package I could scarce- ly believe my eyes: although the paint- ing was in somewhat dilapidated condition, it was clear that the woman in the painting looked precisely like

    Shelley (Figure 1). It was as if it were a picture of Shelley dressed up in an old black lace dress. The woman in the por- trait had exactly the same brown hair, green eyes, features, and expression as Shelley. The resemblance was absolutely uncanny (Figure 2)!

    Who was she? Carefully, I examined the fragile portrait, and very faintly along the left margin, I found what I thought was the artist's signature, which I could barely make out "Hothowour Niewendyk 48." Also, on the painting's back, faded with time but clearly visible in brown ink, was "Sara Marcus Samson." It seemed likely that Sara was the name of the mysterious subject of the portrait. It seemed reason- able that the "48" on the front of the painting stood for the year 1848. Who was Sara Marcus Samson, and why did "Hothowour Niewendyk" paint her por- trait? I wanted to learn as much about Sara and this painting of her as possible.

    My genealogical research had revealed that although my wife's ances- tors were Dutch, they had not resided in Holland. For hundreds of years the family had lived in Dutch Guiana (Surinam) in South America. They were among some of the earliest Dutch settlers to arrive in the late 1600s at this remote, old colonial Dutch outpost, tucked between Brazil and Venezuela. The family repeatedly followed a tradi- tion of marrying only their own cousins; generation after generation were close- ly intermarried. Further genealogical research revealed that the woman in the portrait, Sara Marcus Samson, was Shelley's (as well as Germaine's) great grandmother, born in 1831 in Paramaribo, the capital city of Surinam. Sara had died there in 1882, and as far as anyone knew, she had never left the country. Some of the Samson ancestors in Surinam had owned a plantation. Could it have been called Niewendyk?

    There was no definite evidence. Sara's mother, Judith Benjamin DeVries, was the daughter of a wealthy woodwares merchant in Paramaribo. In 1852 Sara married her cousin, Salomon Israel Levie, who was the chief Hazzan (can- tor or ritual singer) of the Dutch Jewish Synagogue in Paramaribo. Thus the family considered itself part of the local social "upper echelon." Their children, in turn, continued to marry their own cousins until my wife's father came to the United States during World War II. The result was that my wife Shelley is the living reincarnation of her great grandmother's physical appearance.

    My first stop in solving "the mys- tery" of the painting was a trip to Butterfield & Butterfield Auctioneers. There I was told that the portrait defi- nitely was typical in style of mid-19th century Dutch painting, and the cloth- ing depicted indicated that the sitter was indeed quite well-to-do. My second stop was at the restoration laboratory at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, where I inquired regarding what it would take to have the portrait of Sara repaired. It was obvious that "Sara" was suffering from a severe case of fungus from lying in a trunk in the tropical Caribbean climate for so many years. While at the Museum lab, I took advantage of the expertise of the personnel and their extensive library of art reference books to try to make a more definitive identifi- cation of the artist. I couldn't find a list- ing under any of the possible interpretations of alternate spellings of "Niewendyk" in any of the Museum's art reference books, but a technician there suggested that "Niewendyk" might be the place in which the portrait was painted, rather than the name of the artist. Sure enough, in searching

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  • through spelling variations of "Hothowour" in Benizet's Dictionary of Artists, I found a listing for a 19th-centu- ry Dutch portraitist named H. J. Slothowour. He lived and worked in various places in Holland during the 1830s and '40s and then apparently dis- appeared for a while, only to resurface in Germany in 1851. The second word was probably "Niewendyk," ("the new dike," a commonplace name applied to various Dutch towns and streets) and more than likely indicated the location where the picture had been painted.

    On the advice of the Museum staff, I made a photo of the portrait and sent it

    Since the painting had been made in the days before photography was in wide use, either Sara and her family must have traveled to Holland or the artist had visited Surinam. Mr. Van Kretschmar agreed with the second hypothesis. Since there was a hiatus in Slothowour's known works from 1844 to 1851, he wrote, "1848 seems to have been one of the years that Slothowour traveled abroad. Now it seems likely, because of the existence of your Slothowour por- trait, that he fled as far afield as the West Indies to practice his art."

    If, in fact, Slothowour had painted her in 1848, then Sara's portrait had

    the painting's back, faded with time but clearly visible in brown ink, was "Sara Marcus Samson."

    off with a letter to the Stichting Iconographisch Bureau in the Netherlands. This agency maintains a register of 70,000 portraits of Dutch citi- zens made throughout the ages, refer- enced by the artists who painted them. The Director of the Bureau, Mr. Van Kretschmar, positively identified the artist as Hermanus J. Slothowour, say- ing that Sara's likeness was without a doubt "drawn by the same hand as the one that made other Slothowour por- traits in the early 1840s." He went on to tell me that Slothowour's main claim to fame derived from the many murals that he had painted to adorn a multitude of private residences and official build- ings in Holland, but he also was known as a fine, if only occasional, portraitist.

    been made four years before she was married to her cousin Salomon Israel Levie. Mr. Van Kretschmar thought that perhaps it had been made as an engagement picture. But it didn't seem right to me that the portrait was made to show to a prospective bridegroom, since Sara was marrying her own cousin and neighbor. An alternative explanation might have been that Sara and her family had been visiting Holland for an extended period of time, following which an arranged marriage between her and her cousin Salomon back in Surinam was planned. In that case, the portrait would have been sent to Salomon's family to get their approval before the marriage actually took place.

    Further research led me to the Surinam Almanac from 1828, which I obtained from Leiden University

    Library in the Netherlands. In it, I came across the fact that Sara's father, Marcus Salomon Samson, was an innkeeper. Consequently, I developed the theory that Slothowour had come for a visit to Surinam and had stayed at Samson's hotel, which may have been called the "Niewendyk," and that he painted Sara's portrait in return for his room and board. Could it be?

    I stuck with that theory until I dis- covered yet another enticing detail from the genealogical study I was still conducting. It turned out Sara's father had died in 1831, the year Sara was born. Therefore, it was impossible for him to have been the innkeeper at the time Sara was a young woman having her portrait painted.

    In the meantime, I had taken the portrait back to the Museum restora- tion lab for more cleaning. This time a technician found more writing on the back of the painting. It said, (in Dutch) "Sara Marcus Samson painted by Hermanus J. Slothowour-Portraitist, 48 Niewendyk near the Martelaans Bridge-Amsterdam." This informa- tion blew my whole theory. The portrait was really painted in Amsterdam. It was now apparent that the original "48 Niewendyk" was the address. Sure enough, I researched old maps of Amsterdam and learned that Niewendyk had been the name of the main street of the artists' quarter in the city; in fact, it still exists as a thorough- fare lined with artists' and photogra- phers' studios.

    Because Sara was painted pre-pho- tography, I knew she had to have been in Amsterdam in order for Slothowour to paint her. But how did she happen to travel to Amsterdam? My research showed that after her father died when she was an infant, her mother had

    MARCH 1995 / ART EDUCATION

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  • never remarried. So I developed yet another theory. Because Sara's clothes indicated that she was wealthy, I hypothesized that Sara was sent to the mother country, Holland, for a proper education in finishing school, as befit- ted a young Dutch girl who had grown up in such a remote tropical colony as Surinam.

    With that theory in mind, I scanned the records of the cemeteries in Paramaribo, Surinam's capital. I discov- ered an Annie Samson-Levie, born in 1821. Because the first part of a Dutch woman's hyphenated name always indi- cated her husband's last name, while the last part always indicated her maid- en name, I ultimately deduced that

    ter-in-law Annie, was a safe and suitable catch. As I've said, it was the preferred custom then to marry cousins and other close relatives to each other, thus preserving the family's wealth and "noble characteristics" (just the oppo- site of today's genetic counseling), which is why Sara looks exactly like my wife. The Levie clan must have wanted a picture of the prospective bride, since it had been so many years since she'd been away at school. Therefore, Sara was marched down to the Niewendyk to have her portrait painted, so her prospective groom in Surinam could see whom he was getting as a wife. That...

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