SALEM — The House of the Seven Gables marks the start of its festive holiday season with the much-anticipated unveiling of a prized work of art that has been newly conserved, thanks to a generous grant by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
“Flight Into Egypt,” a large oil painted by Sophia Peabody a few years before she married Nathaniel Hawthorne, will be unveiled on Saturday, December 2, at 4 p.m. The event includes a reception at The Gables, a talk and the painting’s unveiling in its new home, The House of the Seven Gables’ parlor. It is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required at 7gables.org/event/flight-into-egypt-reception/.
The Gables has good reason to celebrate. Sophia Peabody’s rare and highly accomplished painting is now expertly and beautifully conserved. The conservation project will also shine a light on Sophia herself, one of this country’s first female commercial artists. The remarkable transformation of “Flight Into Egypt” will afford her the attention she has long deserved. And the painting’s placement in the parlor of The House of the Seven Gables allows for a more in-depth interpretation of that central gathering space. In particular, the work brings added dimension to the stories of the women who lived there.
“I am thrilled with the outpouring of support that made conserving this painting possible,” says Gables Executive Director Dakota Russell. “Nathaniel Hawthorne casts a long shadow, and Sophia’s accomplishments are often lost in it. With the restoration of ‘Flight Into Egypt,’ she will now have her own well-deserved spotlight in The House of the Seven Gables.”
“There are only about nine of Sophia’s paintings still accounted for,” says Susan Baker, collections manager at The Gables. She says that the work’s significance can be measured in several ways beginning with the fact that Sophia is known to be one of this country’s first and most talented female professional artists. She was mentored and taught by three of the country’s leading painters of that era — Chester Harding, Washington Allston and Thomas Doughty. Such mentoring was a rare occurrence for a female at the time. Sophia was committed to her art and thought her work would help support her should she remain single. But her 1842 marriage to Nathaniel shifted her priorities.
“Flight Into Egypt,” which was painted around 1834 and measures 44.5 inches by 33 inches, depicts the biblical story of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus fleeing into Egypt to escape King Herod. The scene is tranquil, lush and filled with evocative details. Cows graze, a young man plays a lute, a river rushes by in the background and, off in a corner, members of the young family are led to safety by an angel.
“There’s a lot of detail in the area of the figures,” says Theresa Carmichael, the conservator who spent 150 hours examining and restoring the painting. “Sophia was quite adept at her figure drawings,” she says. “It was fun to see these figures come to life from under the gloom during the conservation process. You can tell that Sophia had a fun-loving side in the way the cattle were coming to the water, in the way the man played his lute. You can tell that there was some fun there. The figures are beautiful, and the waves and the water are really stylized and artfully done.”
The painting was in rough condition when Carmichael received it. The paint itself had bubbled up, separating from the canvas. There were tears, once repaired, but later failed. The painting had experienced scorching, water damage and abrasions. The gloom that the conservator referenced came from the much-darkened varnish applied at some earlier time.
It isn’t even clear how or when The Gables came to acquire “Flight Into Egypt.” Most authorities conjecture that Caroline Emmerton, the philanthropist who purchased the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in the early 1900s and transformed it into a museum to support Settlement programming, is responsible for the painting’s eventual presence at The Gables.
Susan Baker had flagged “Flight Into Egypt” as needing expert care and had sought support for its conservation. Thanks to the Wyeth Foundation of American Art, the necessary expert intervention brings to the fore a much more vibrant, stunning work. And a Gables’ fundraising campaign recently allowed for the purchase of a suitable period frame.
“We are custodians of the artwork,” says Conservator Carmichael. “It’s been nice to have the opportunity to work on something like this, to change it from perilous to a stable and secure condition. We try to do the best we can. ‘Flight Into Egypt’ should remain in good stead for a very long time.”
About The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association
The mission of The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association is to be a welcoming, thriving, historic site and community resource that engages people of all backgrounds in our inclusive American story. For more information visit www.7gables.org