Connected \\ December 27, 2019

Behind the scenes with Collection Management

The Portrait of Rachel Hathorne Forrester, painted in 1822 by James Frothingham, is an almost inevitable consequence of the fabulous wealth that emerged in Salem in the generation following the Revolutionary War. Salem entrepreneurs sent ships "to the farthest port of the rich East," as the City of Salem's motto goes, to acquire spices, tea, porcelain, silks and related goods. A merchant class arose from Salem’s maritime trade. They built grand homes and had them filled with fine furnishings, including painted portraits by the leading artists of the day.

Portrait of Rachel Hathorne Forrester.1822 by James Frothingham

Portrait of Rachel Hathorne Forrester.1822 by James Frothingham © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert.


The sitter’s connection to the height of Salem’s historic commercial glory is direct: Rachel’s husband, Simon Forrester, amassed a substantial fortune in the years following the Revolutionary War by expanding existing and pioneering new trade routes. They had a house built (which stands to this day) just steps away from Salem harbor. Many of Rachel’s paternal ancestors were successful ship captains as well.

Simon Forrester house, salem

The former Forrester family residence on Derby Street, Salem. Photo by Eric Wolin.

That the Rachel Hathorne Forrester portrait ultimately came into PEM’s collection in 1911 is unsurprising. Many portraits and treasured heirlooms descended through Salem’s merchant families before being given to PEM. The PEM collection also includes a portrait of Simon Forrester, and other members of the Forrester family painted by James Frothingham.

There is another portrait of Rachel Hathorne Forrester in the collection of The House of the Seven Gables. Staff have wondered whether Frothingham himself may have painted their example. The best means of validating an assumption about one work of art is to study other known examples of the artist’s body of work. Comparing how the same subject is repeated provides scholars invaluable opportunities to discern technical hallmarks, patterns and variations, often unobservable in photo reproduction. Fortunately, The House of the Seven Gables and PEM are less than a mile away from one another. Susan Baker Leavitt, Collections Manager at The House of the Seven Gables, contacted me to request permission to have first-hand access to Rachel Hathorne Forrester.


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”It’s one of our favorite paintings and we need to take care of it,” says Leavitt. “It’s kind of fun to explore the idea that this could be an additional painting to the one Frothingam made that PEM has.” Whether the Gables’ painting is an actual Frothingham is still to be determined, says Leavitt. “Still, this was a fun example of working with an institution in the same town to deepen an understanding of something that you haven’t explored before.”

Accommodating requests such as this is something PEM regularly provides to scholars who seek to advance various research projects. In 2019 alone, scholars from across the country (including Hawai’i) have studied PEM objects first hand in our storage facilities. We have welcomed scholars visiting Salem from France, England, Bangladesh, India and Japan as well. But granting access to a Salem-based organization is especially satisfying to PEM and is no less important in helping us better understand our collection.

Leavitt was accompanied by Fine Art and Antiques appraiser Colleene Fesko as we went into PEM storage to study not just the painting's surface, but the back of it as well. Their time at PEM may affirm or alter their assumptions about their painting, or lead to a commitment to study the painting further.


Susan Baker Leavitt, Colleene Fesko, visited PEM storage

Colleene Fesko (left) and Susan Baker Leavitt (right) closely examine and discuss the PEM painting of Rachel Hathorne Forrester. Photo by Eric Wolin.


Where might your research take you? For scholars interested in studying objects in the PEM collection, please follow this link or write to pem_collection@pem.org.

Please note that PEM does not provide appraisal information for works of art. If you would like to know more about your treasure, especially what it is worth, please follow this link.

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