As the contents of this blog attest, I have a lot of “favorite” artifacts in our collections. If you really push me to name my most favorite, however, I might have to go with the portrait of Foresta.

Foresta Vinson was born on April 11, 1830, probably in Rockville. She was the daughter of Thomas F. W. Vinson (ca. 1785-1843) and Mary “Polly” Hickman Vinson (ca. 1796-1875), third of their four children. The Vinsons were a prominent Rockville family; her father was the county Sheriff, served as a Judge of the Orphan’s Court, and owned both land and slaves. In 1853, Foresta was 23 years old and engaged to be married. Artist Thomas Cantwell Healy was commissioned to paint the young lady’s wedding portrait.

The large oil painting, in an elaborately carved and gilded frame, shows Foresta in a white dress, with a gold ring on her left ring finger and an open pocket watch in her right hand. She’s standing indoors in front of a nicely finished wall and an expensive chair, with a pastoral landscape visible outdoors behind her. The landscape-out-the-window setting was a common portraiture convention, implying the subject’s wealth and status. Foresta herself has a placid expression on her face, thanks to a faint smile and a slightly off-kilter gaze. The portrait is signed (on the wall above Foresta’s right shoulder) “T.C. Healy Rockville Md AD 1853.”

As the story goes, in December of 1853 Foresta Vinson died of typhoid either the night before, or the morning of, her wedding. The painting descended through the family of her niece, Julia Vinson Anderson, and was donated to us by Julia’s grandsons. The Andersons believed that it was finished after Foresta’s death, and the open pocket watch may have been used by the artist as a symbol of mortality; timepieces stopped at the time of death were sometimes included in postmortem portraits, though the subjects were portrayed as alive. There is also some speculation that her just-a-little-off expression – her eyes aren’t looking in the same direction, to be quite honest – was a deliberate choice made after her death. Any art historians better versed in the symbolism of 19th century portraiture want to weigh in?

Poor Foresta. Almost everything we know about the portrait, short of the artist and date, comes from Anderson family stories, and even that is sparse. Only a few references to her can be found in the family records, and she’s basically dismissed as one of TFW Vinson’s no-genealogy-to-follow children (“Foresta, died on her wedding day”) if not forgotten altogether. The only physical reminders we have – the portrait, and a pair of postmortem daguerreotypes – relate to her death. What was her life like? Unfortunately, she didn’t live in a time or place that exerted much effort recording the lives of young unmarried women; her family’s money is the main reason for the little we do have (portraits aren’t cheap). There are so many unanswered questions; I can’t even find the name of her fiancé. 

So why is she my favorite? The easy answer is that it’s a great portrait hanging just out of sight (the top of her frame is visible over the false walls in our exhibit gallery), and I feel sorry that she seldom gets out and about. But on a deeper level, something about the whole package – artifacts, sketchy records, pitiful story – speaks to me, just as certain events or individuals speak to other historians. There are Civil War buffs and Benjamin Franklin fans; call me a Human Interest Story afficionado, eager to share these stories with others like me.

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