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Cover Girl Revealed

Artist Thomas Sully, who moved to Charleston in 1792, painted the portraits of both Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gilmor Jr. (above) in Baltimore in 1823. In fact, Sarah Ladson Gilmor, who appears on our January cover, was the subject of several portraits and sculptures, including this bust by Horatio Greenough. All three works are in the Gibbes Museum of Art collection. Images (3) courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

January 19, 2011

Cover Girl Revealed
Sarah Ladson Gilmor, portrait of a Charleston lady

written by Amy Stockwell Mercer

As our January cover girl prepares for her unveiling this Thursday in the special Charleston loan exhibition at New York’s Winter Antiques Show, we share more about the rare beauty in Thomas Sully’s 1823 portrait.

In the early 1800s, Miss Sarah Reeve Ladson, an attractive and stylish young woman from a prominent Charleston family, was swept off her feet by a wealthy northerner in a whirlwind romance. Sixteen years her senior, Baltimore merchant Robert Gilmor Jr. had traveled South at his doctor’s urgings to help allay his developing pulmonary disease. Gilmor spent the winter in Charleston frequenting the home (one of the “gayest in the city”) of Major James Ladson and his wife, Judith. In his journal, Gilmor wrote: “After remaining in Charleston the whole winter, it was my lot to marry Miss Sarah Ladson on the 9 April 1807. She was the sixth daughter of Major James Ladson, an old revolutionary officer, who served as aid de camp to General Lincoln at the siege of Charleston.... Mrs. Gilmor is connected by father & mother with most of the respectable families in Carolina, particularly the Middletons, the Gibbes, the Manigaults, the Haywards & the Izards.”

Sarah returned to Maryland with Robert, and though they never had children, she continued her parents’ entertaining traditions as a celebrated hostess in her Baltimore home. Known as a “gentleman of refined culture,” Mr. Gilmor was a patron of American artists, including well-known portraitist Thomas Sully, whom he commissioned to capture his and his wife’s likenesses. Both are in the collection of the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Sully’s portraits of women were considered his most successful, as he was said to sympathize with the “fair and lovely rather than the grand or comic.” In 2000, the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured an exhibition of the artist’s work, quoting a critic of Sully’s time who described his female portraitures as “oftentimes poems, full of grace and tenderness [with eyes that are] liquid enough and clear enough to satisfy even a husband—or a lover.”

Sully’s portrait of Sarah Ladson Gilmor stands out with its use of vibrant hues and exoticism. Her pale skin is contrasted against the bold colors of the headpiece and green fur jacket. While Mrs. Gilmor’s contemporaries were painted wearing fussy bonnets or wide-brimmed hats with flowers, she is captured in an Oriental-inspired turban, which was rumored to have been a gift from the artist.

Said to have been one of the most beautiful and fashionable women of her time, Sarah Ladson Gilmor returns to New York (where she once attended opera with her husband) alongside other Charleston artworks and antiques as part of the loan exhibition, “Grandeur Preserved: Masterworks Presented by Historic Charleston Foundation.” “Mrs. Gilmor is in wonderful condition,” writes Gibbes director of collections administration Zinnia Willits on the museum blog. “She had some work done (shhhh) before her trip to China [the portrait was selected as part of the 2007 exhibit ‘Art in America: Three Hundred Years of Innovation,’ which featured approximately 130 important works of American art spanning the Colonial period to the present and was shown in Beijing and Shanghai] and is in great shape to travel to New York City.” The beautiful Sarah Ladson Gilmor will no doubt continue to catch viewers’ eyes.

To read the feature story “A Grand Tour” and see other priceless objects on loan for the Winter Antiques Show, click here.

For more on “Grandeur Preserved: Masterworks Presented by Historic Charleston Foundation,” click here.

For more on the Winter Antiques Show, click here.

To learn how the Gibbes Museum prepared Mrs. Gilmor for her trip to New York, click here and scroll down.


Wed, 01/19/2011