Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby

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Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby
Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby, 1800-1825
James Frothingham (1786-1864)
Eldredge Print
Peabody Essex Museum
Salem in History, 2006
Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby, c. 1800-1925
James Frothingham (1786-1864)
Boston
Oil on canvas
Gift of the Derby Family
M353
HISTORICAL
CONTEXT
This is a posthumous portrait of Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799), who was born into a family of seamen and
merchants in Salem, MA. By making shrewd and bold business decisions during the years of the American
Revolution (1776-1784) and the early Federal period, Derby became America’s first millionaire. At the outbreak of the Revolution, Derby owned a fleet of seven vessels, but four were quickly captured by the British.
A staunch patriot, Derby gave money and supplies to the Continental army and converted his remaining three
ships to privateers. This status allowed ship owners to arm vessels and to attack ships from a country designated as the enemy. In return, privateer owners received a share of the cargo taken, and the government
claimed the rest. As the owner of privateers, Derby increased his fleet to 85 vessels that captured 144 enemy
ships.
Following the war, American merchants were eager to enter into the lucrative China trade, which the British
denied its American colonies. Derby was at the forefront of this economic opportunity; he sent the first New
England ship, the Grand Turk, to China. Though he never went to sea, Elias Hasket Derby amassed one of the
largest maritime fortunes in America.
A R T
H I S T O R I C A L
C O N T E X T
Bostonian James Frothingham began his artistic career as a portraitist in the Boston and Salem region, and was
influenced heavily by painter and mentor Gilbert Stuart, who possessed a swift, freely brushed style of portraiture. Here, Frothingham depicts Elias Hasket Derby as successful at home as well as at sea. References to his
maritime ties are represented by the maps on the desk and by the seascape through the adjacent window.
This portrait is painted in the tradition of the time, with somber colors, a formal, stiff pose and, and abstract
drapes positioned behind the subject. Derby is shown as a master of his environment, a fitting commemoration
for an important and influential man.
SAMPLE GUIDING QUESTIONS
• What objects do you see in this painting? If these objects all belong to Derby, what might they suggest
about him? What might his profession be?
• How important was this profession during the years following the Revolutionary War? Why?
• When was this portrait painted? At what point in his life do we see Derby? Does he appear to be
young, middle-aged, or old?
• Why do people want to have portraits? Why do you think Derby’s portrait was painted?
• What does this portrait tell us about the importance of China Trade entrepreneurs to the people in
the early Federal period?
SUGGESTED LEARNING ACTIVITIES
• Ask students to make a chart of objects in this painting, and in the second column, brainstorm how the
objects relate to the main in the painting.
• Compare this portrait with that of William Pepperell. How does each artist suggest that the subject is
a successful man in the 18th century? How are the men depicted as successful in different ways?
• Compare this portrait with that of a successful entrepreneur today. What does each suggest about the
subject and society’s values?
• Ask students to work in pairs and create portraits of each other. Include “props” or images, objects,
etc. that help to tell viewers something about the subject.
2003 Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Frameworks: 3.5, 5.32, USI.1, USI. 5
Peabody Essex Museum
Salem in History 2006