April 2012 - Harriet Hemings? and the Market

Harriet Hemings?
An interesting miniature portrait sold recently on eBay was this one, said to be of Harriet Hemings. It was described as;
"Important Ivory Portrait Miniature believed to be Thomas Jefferson's Daughter Harriet C. 1820. This is an incredible portrait miniature with a very unusual look. It was no doubt done by a highly skilled artist (technically) as the face is simply incredible.

One of the papers inside the piece indicates the subject as "Harriett Hemings", president Thomas Jefferson had two daughter's with his slave Sally Hemings, named Harriett, one dying shortly after birth, and the other, often known as "Harriet II", was born at Monticello in 1801 and was known to be working in the textile factory by age 14. It was well known that she was very light skinned and could "pass for white". The interesting thing here that the artist truthfully portrayed was that although she had very light skin, she still had African American features.

There is a lock of hair in the back of the miniature, backed by a piece of a silk dress of the subject's. The hair is very thick and course, dark, yet has a deep red tint. Jefferson was a blazing red head. Most historians believe her father is Jefferson, who is believed by many historians to have had a relationship with his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings, half-sister to his late wife. Harriet is one of Sally Hemings' four children who survived to adulthood.

This miniature has sustained a hairline crack along the left side, with perhaps some water damage. The miniature is a beautiful color as far as condition, probably because it has retained its original case (very rare) all these years. ".

The miniature had around 550 views and 35 bids before closing at $3178, despite it being cracked from top to bottom to the right of centre. Needless to say the vendor fielded many questions about the miniature.

Therefore, on Mar-14-12 the seller added the following information:

We have had a lot of questions-hopefully this will answer many of your questions. We acquired the miniature from an estate in Massachusetts. The family had possession of it for many generations, which is probably why we are so lucky to have the original case retained with it. There is not any genealogy behind why they might have had this piece, but the history of Harriet Hemings after she left Monticello is very barren.

We have been in contact with the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society in Virginia and they offered an opinion and story:

“The miniature of Harriet Hemings is interesting. She ran away with Mr. Jefferson's blessings in 1822 and apparently disappeared into the white world. She has not been identified as Harriet Hemings since then so it would have been made before 1822. As a slave she probably would not have had the money to have a miniature made. The hair would have to have the root element to have a chance of carrying a DNA signature. You might try the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello as they are interested in slave memorabilia. The provenance would be hard to prove because of her history but if true may give us a clue as to where she went and what she did after "running away" from Monticello. “

We had concluded also that this miniature dates prior to 1822, as she appears to be quite young in the portrait, around age 12-14, which would date this piece to approximately 1811. No doubt the subject would not have had the wealth to commission such a portrait, but someone who would want to remember her would have had to, unless there was some kind of personal relationship going on with the painter. Since Harriet was the second female child named Harriet, her sister dying in infancy at age 2, perhaps there was fear of loss due to the high mortality rate of children at that time, so the portrait was commissioned.

My Opinion - I have been asked by a collector for my opinion. I did watch the sale but did not bid as, even apart from the final price, I had several reservations. In my opinion the miniature dates from c1840, not from 1811. A useful resource in dating miniatures is Fashions in Hair by Richard Corson. The examples in that book illustrate that the hair style of the sitter dates to c1840-1845. Her style of dress dates to around 1840 and the metal case also dates to around 1840. To me the writing does not appear to be contemporary with the miniature and looks more early 20C in style. My knowledge of genetics is very limited, but I believe blue eyes are normally recessive, with brown eyes likely to dominate. Here the sitter has blue eyes which therefore needs to be explained in the context of a slave parent (that is generally, but not categoric). Thus, on balance I doubt the sitter is Harriet Hemings.

Other Sales
Auction prices achieved on eBay tend to average between $250-$500, with something special needed to exceed this range.

Recent sales included a miniature portrait of an unknown lady sold on eBay for £630 ($1000). The vendor did not know the artist, but it is clearly by the Irish artist Frederick Buck.

A surprisingly high price, $4830, said to be a miniature of around 1850 of a lady and her baby from the McCagg family, was paid by a dealer for a portrait by Richard Morrell Staigg (1817-1881) a British artist who arrived in USA in 1831.

He visited Europe 1867-1869, and again in 1872-1874. The case here has an outer rectangular wooden frame and an inner ormolu mount.

From the style of the casework, the hairstyle, and her dress, it appears likely this miniature was painted by Staigg during his visits to England in 1867-1874. Casework like this tended to be used in Europe, rather than USA.

Somewhat similar wooden outer frames were used by the American artist John Henry Brown as with the example shown here, but they lacked such an ornate ormolu inner frame. Another British miniature with a wooden outer frame and an ormolu mount is also shown for comparison.

More about photographic bases
American and British miniature portraits from the early 20C provide an interesting comparison. One being a painted miniature and the other two appearing to be on a photographic base.

The oval one of a young lady sold for $505. It was described as; An American Revival watercolor portrait miniature, of a young woman with red hair and blue eyes, wearing a pink dress and blue stone pendant, against a blue background. The painting is set in a gilt pendant frame with a solid reverse, and is signed by listed artist Sarah Eakin Cowan at the lower right. It is accompanied by a card which says: "Mrs. M. Campbell / by Sarah Eakin Cowan / New York City/ 1940 / 3 1/4 x 4 1/4." The painting is in excellent condition.

The rectangular one was sold for $478 and was described as; outstanding antique portrait miniature of a DuPont family beauty (possibly jean liseter austin / dupont 1897-1988, although we can't confirm this), superbly painted in oil / gouache on ox bone (NOT celluloid or related material), the female in magnificent jewels & clothing of the period, with original dore gold over bronze frame having hanging pendant at top, original glass (note: some chips to edges of glass inside). The painting is signed C.B. Pereira, and dates to circa 1915-20. approx 4.5" tall x 3.5" wide overall. Pereira is not recognised as a miniature painter in Blattel's Dictionary which lists 36,000 miniature painters, but his granddaughter advises he did paint miniatures. This one appears to be over a photographic base which was common at the time.

The miniature of the child also appears to be on a photographic base. It sold for £555 ($890) and was described as; This auction is for a truly lovely antique English portrait miniature by well listed miniaturist Beatrice Wainwright. Dating one would guess to the earlier 20thC. A sensitively painted portrait of a young girl. Measures 7.5cm wide x 15.5cm tall. Signed to the lower edge and bares the artists name and London address to the reverse.

However, the similar prices achieved show that collectors do not discriminate against miniatures painted over a photographic base, if the sitter is appealing and the artist is named.


  1. Actually as the blue-eyed Mother of 4 blue-eyed sons I was surprised when my brown eyed daughter in law gave birth to a blue eyed daughter over a year ago.
    And I can still remember the day I first looked into Maynard Jackson's eyes- they were not brown either.
    As for the hair, dress and especially the lace of this girl's attire, it all looks more Empire/Regency than strictly the 1840's, and there are many examples, but see the portrait of Abigail Adams, ie. for the painting of the stylistic lace and style of the lace itself.
    And if anybody wants to compare the portraits of Martha Jefferson Randolph and her Mother Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson with the above miniature especially the nose and eyes...well maybe it is a fake, but the artist has captured the similiarities in the features.
    with regards
    Maura Hagarty Bannon

    1. This is easily explained by Mendelian Genetics. Blue eyes are recessive, and Brown eyes are dominant traits. Let's represent the genes for Blue eyes as "b". The lower case "b" means blue recessive. Now, each "b" gene comes from the mother and father to form a blue-eyed offspring. This is represented as bb. One b comes from the mom, and the other b comes from the pop. Now, lets represent capital "B" as the brown-eye gene. But the B gene is dominant and trumps the b gene. Therefore, those who are Bb or BB will have brown eyes.
      Since you your brown-eyed DIL had blue-eyed offspring w. your blue-eyed son, this means that your brown-eyed DIL is Bb. If Your brown-eyed DIL were BB, she couldn't have blue-eyed offspring at all. Now, since your son is blue-eyed, this means that his genes are bb, since b is recessive.
      Using algebraic genetic notation, one gets this:
      (0.5 B + 0.5b) x (0.5b + 0.5b) = 0.25Bb + 0.25Bb + 0.50bb
      = 0.50 Bb + 0.50bb
      This means that there is a 50% probability that your DIL (who is Bb) and your son (who is bb) will have offspring with brown-eyes with the Bb genes. And there is a 50% probability that your DIL and son will have offspring who are blue eyed.

  2. Don't forget that Sally Hemings was believed to be the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, and so had a white (possibly blue-eyed?)father, and could have been carrying the recessive gene for blue eyes.

    1. Using Mendelian genetics, if one were to presume that Sally had a B coming from the Negroid race, and the b coming from the Caucasoid-Neanderthal race, then Sally would be Bb. If Tommy Jefferson had blue eyes, then using Mendelian genetics, Tommy would be bb. Therefore, if one were to mate Sally and Tommy together, one would expect that 50% of their offspring would be dark-eyed and 50% of their offspring would be blue-eyed.
      This is illustrated schematically this way:
      Tommy Jefferson (bb) X Sally Heming (Bb)---> 0.50bb + 0.50Bb

  3. Your conclusions about the eye color is wrong. It is not improbable that African-Americans with white ancestry would have eye colors other than brown. Sally Hemings was 2/3 white. Her children with Jefferson would only carry a trace amount of African ancestry. The only reason that this may not be Harriet is the lock of hair. It is doubtful that Harriet would have had thick and course hair (DNA anyone?). The signature on the back "Harriet Heming" is very compelling.
    It would not have matter if the subject had the money to have her portrait made. An adult would have made this decision. If Thomas Jefferson wants to have a portrait made, it would have been done. period.

  4. Thank you Anonymous -
    You obviously have not bothered to read my reasoning.

    I state clearly; "In my opinion the miniature dates from c1840, not from 1811. A useful resource in dating miniatures is Fashions in Hair by Richard Corson. The examples in that book illustrate that the hair style of the sitter dates to c1840-1845. Her style of dress dates to around 1840 and the metal case also dates to around 1840. To me the writing does not appear to be contemporary with the miniature and looks more early 20C in style."

    In your criticism you have left unexplained how a girl, supposedly from 1811, is wearing clothes from c1840. The reference to eye colour is merely a matter of obiter dicta and not relevant to the actual dating of the miniature.

  5. Not necessarily the Harriet Hemings, because there were other Monticellian Harriets -- Sally's son Madison Hemings had a daughter named Harriet, for example, or this person could be an offshoot from someone else. But the red hair and gray-blue eyes and general phenotype are compelling. Who was the Massachusetts family that owned this miniature for generations? Thanks!

  6. The miniature was sold by a dealer on eBay who did not disclose any provenance.

  7. The previous owners in Mass were probably descend. of Harriet. She chose to disappear, and kept her lineage to herself. Even from her white family that came from her. Generations later, there is no history. However a locket is passed down. I bet if DNA testing was done on the family in Mass, you would find a link to Thomas Jefferson. As far as the blue eyes. Very possible. As long as it is on both sides of the parents lineage it came come out. My husband and I are considered African American. However, both with white ancestry. We had a child with blond hair and crystal blue eyes. Neither of us were socialized with whites in our immediate family. We are descendants of plantation unions and post civil war unions. Point is, those genes don't go away and you see those white ancestors in children born generations later. I believe this to be Harriet, and I am glad this photo is public knowledge. One generation away from her white father and quadroon mother. Blue eyes is certainly very possible. Why write the name of Harriet Hemings all those years ago? Then the TJ red hair. Everything can be debated, and found a reason not to be. The girl in this picture looks a lot like the other descend. of Sally in facial structure. Maybe, just maybe it is as simple as, yes this is Harriet Hemings.

  8. To Anonymous,
    I do genuinely respect your mixed heritage, but I am afraid as with others who have left similar anonymous comments, I fear you have let your "wishful heart" overrule your "logical head". I beg to point out that "blue-eyes" is only one of the clear facts about this portrait. The sitter's age, hairstyle, and style of dress are much more important facts in making an attribution, and their dating is inconsistent with any possible identification as HH. Unless you can explain those facts I am afraid your wishful thinking as to the sitter's identity lacks any credibility. As an art historian who had to extensively use historical facts to overcome entrenched academic resistance and "conventional wisdom" in re-writing obstetric history, see and who is currently re-writing the academic "conventional wisdom" behind William Hogarth's Four Stages of Cruelty, to now demonstrate his satiric intent, I have learned to reply, and to succeed, based upon my "logical head", and not on my "wishful heart".
    I very much welcome constructive comments about my posts, but regret I will no longer respond to similar anonymous claims that the sitter is HH, unless the writer provides clear and logical reasoning to explain the chronological discrepancies.

  9. The above "Anonymous" has sent me a nice reply to my "grumpy old man" message as above. She has included her name, but while I am happy to embarrass myself, I think it unfair to embarrass her by now publishing her name in this particular instance, other than to say she comes from Chicago. This is her message;
    [[You seem respectfully annoyed by our views :-) I do actually understand that. However, the words weren't just for you. A number of people will be reading this, and it is for them as well. For a dialogue perhaps. So if my words and lack of art education make you flinch, please disregard. As that is not my intention. The thread can still continue. I was unable to post from wordpress like I intended, because it would not allow it for some reason. It was rather frustrating. I certainly respect your view point from an art historians perspective. Very much so. Since that is not where my education is, I cannot dispute what you noted. Upon thinking more from my viewpoint, and playing devils advocate to it: You can see black features in the young girl. Since Harriet passed, she most obviously looked completely white. Whereas this person does not. In my eyes, she could not pass. I do however feel that she is some relation. Perhaps from one of Elizabeth H. other children, or one of Sally's other children. At any rate this is a beautiful piece of art, that I am happy to see of note for public opinion. Thank you for the post.]]

  10. Here is another message from "Anonymous".
    [[Don, Thank you for posting my words. I was not sure if you would. Your attempt at belittling me, was just that. You gave me a smile really. Again, feel free to disregard my words. Granted this is your blog , but it does not mean you need to attempt to bully those that come on with a different perspective. It’s very childish really. If you choose to post this with the same preface as before, you will again give me another smile and not flanked by embarrassment in the least.

    Sadly when Harriet H. is googled, your blog is the first one that comes up in the images sections. Hopefully it will be pushed down further, so people can come across a kinder person behind such a fascinating piece of art. Versus adding comments to this “grumpy old man page”. Your words, not mine. Vous avez une belle journée. Je vous dis adieu]]

    In my defence, what is not obvious to "anonymous" and any other readers of these comments, is that most people contact me by email, via clicking on my profile, which is much preferred as it is a lot less hassle in responding. Since my initial posting of the information about this miniature in an honest attempt to inform the public, I have received quite a number of emails on the subject of HH, some of which were quite abusive of my doubts about the miniature. None of those are referenced here. Hence these published comments are only the "tip of the iceberg" represented by people who have been critical of my opinion, but none of whom provided any evidence to support their views, other than "wishful thinking". As one might therefore expect, that makes an author "once (or more!) bitten, twice (or thrice!) shy"!

  11. Just some thoughts...I tend to agree with the assessment that the date of the miniature is c. 1840-1845, observing the hairstyle. Should bear in mind that Harriet Hemings of Monticello took great pains to hide her identity- she changed her name and racial identification. She disappeared from history as that was her intention. Her brother Madison's statement that after she left Monticello, in 1822, that she married a white man of some prominence in Washington and they had children who did not know of their mother's origins would seem to counter the idea that the name of Harriet Hemings would ever grace a miniature for others to discover. Of course some family member who kept the secret of Harriet's fate could have conceivably signed her name to the miniature, not wanting the truth of this lady's origins and story to be forgotten to time, but bear in mind that people, and especially family members, generally respected the wishes of those who passed for white to remain anonymous. If brother Madison knew of Harriet's fate, then there were other Hemmings family members who knew of it as well and none, apart from Madison, have stepped forward to speak of it. And given Harriet Hemings was long married by 1840, if the miniature dates to that period and not earlier, the subject's married name would most certainly have been used on the miniature; it would have been disrespectful to this lady and her husband to refer to her by her maiden name. It would be exciting if this handsome looking woman were indeed Harriet of Monticello. But for those of us, including myself, who have logged hours trying to trace Harriet Hemings and found other Harriet Hemmings/Hemingses in 19th century documents, and given all considerations as mentioned above, I do believe the lady in the miniature is very likely another Harriet Hemings - if she is not Harriet "Hennings," which I also read as a possible signature identification.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. (Had to correct a typo, so previous answer above deleted)
    Hi Jill, Many thanks for your thoughtful and rational contribution. With reference to your final point, it may be helpful to know that my main reference book, Blattel (one of about 100 books on miniature portraits in my library) list 36,000 miniature painters. There are no artists named Hemings, nor any similar alternative spelling, listed as active in America in the mid 19C. The paper the signature is written on is very coarse, so I doubt contemporary use of a mid 19C pen would have appeared so smooth. I believe the style of writing dates to the mid 20C and was probably written with a fountain pen.

  14. Thanks, Mr. Shelton, and I concur that the signature style also looks relatively modern (compared with say, the typical penmanship of the period and including Civil War letters.). Sorry you are receiving vitriolic messages over this; the subject of Sally Hemings stirs up passions. I hope you'll preserve this blog post and thread because there are so many more who would benefit from it than do not. Cheers and thanks, Jill

  15. Another possibility is that this woman is the daughter of Harriet Hemings. But it's all speculation. Clearly, more research into this mystery needs to be done.

  16. I had a distant relative who lived in Bristol V.A. 1870s;Captain James Harvey Wood. He claimed that his house servant of 22 years was Harreit Jefferson who went by the name Sadie.She had a brother in Bristol named David Jefferson who I believe was Beverly. Anyone wanting to solve that mystery of Harriet and Beverly look to Bristol V.A..

  17. People don't want to believe this picture ISN'T Harriet Hemings, but the odds that it is are very small. First, the author's own arguments on hair and clothing dating to 30 years later, and the handwriting being very far off for the time period. But also, the portrait doesn't match descriptions of Harriet or even Sally, for the matter.

    1847 Isaac Jefferson, former Monticello slave: "Sally Hemings' mother Betty was a bright mulatto woman, and Sally mighty near white....Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back." (Bear.4)

    c1851 Thomas J. Randolph, Jefferson's grandson, as told to Henry S. Randall: "Both the Henings [sic] girls were light colored and decidedly goodlooking." (Randall 1868)

    Edmund Bacon, the longtime Monticello overseer, said Harriet Hemings was as "nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful."

    Jefferson was heartbroken over the death of his wife, who was Sally's half-sister. Harriet would have quite probably looked like one of his surviving legitimate children, considering they shared 75% of their DNA.

    I think that somebody had a family story passed down that they were descendants of Harriet, and this miniature at some point was thought to be her. Eventually, people hear the same story enough times and take it as gospel, and someone decided to write Harriet's name on it to make sure that it wasn't "forgotten" who the picture was of, never realizing that it was a story that was later accepted as fact.

    Harriet Hemings passed as white according to her brother, and the girl might have gotten quite a bit of trouble if she tried "passing." Jefferson Davis's wife Varina was gossiped about quite a bit because others thought she looked like she was of more than one race, and her family is well-documented.

    I doubt any historian, researcher, or expert in these fields would ever accept this is a portrait of Harriet Hemings. That doesn't mean that the family in question isn't hers, and I'd be very interested if that was investigated further. Unfortunately, this portrait is probably myth.

  18. There were a few other Harriets associated with Monticello; Madison Hemings, Harriet's brother, had a daughter named Harriet Hemings, for example (see:

    Also read more on Madison Hemings, here:

    And here's a transcript of his recollections:

    Madison's Harriet bears no resemblance to the young woman in the portrait. According to Madison, his sister Harriet married a white man, lived as white, and her children never knew her as Harriet Hemings of Monticello, thus we can assume she gave up her maiden name when she married, which would have been c. 1820s, decades before this portrait was painted, if we're still dating the painting to mid 18th century based on hair and clothing. The red hair attached to the portrait is interesting. Maybe DNA can be extracted from it. Doubtful, though.

    There were Hemingses who hailed from England and Germany, living in the USA, in mid 19th century. This young woman could have been an immigrant and not a former slave. Or, she certainly could be a heretofore unknown Hemings granddaughter of Monticello (or, say, of Millbrook, which was the Eppes estate, belonging to Jefferson's son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes, and which produced a Harriet Hemings of its own -- Please Google: "Harriet Dean Hemmings" to see a photo of her).

    Perhaps it is just as conjectural to say it is definitively her as it is to assert that this lady must have had a family who believed it was her and wrote her name down so that this imposter Harriet Hemings might be remembered by future generations. Per Occam's razor, the simplest explanation that would be true in this case indicates that this is a portrait of a Harriet Hemings but not THE Harriet Hemings.

  19. Does no one know that Jill Sim is a student of Jeffersonian descents and very, very likely such a descendant herself. Having read Shannon Lanier's effort to establish connections based on what the world has come to dignify as 'oral history," besides the latter day DNA findings, I said to my husband "You 'know' that your grandfather was a farmer in Russia and a silk-worker (by his Spitafields address in London, and I 'know' that on both sides my people were farmers in the 1600's near Princeton NJ and near Deerfield Mass, but absent some sleuthing doneand recorded by family members over time, you might be the Episcopalian and I might be the Jew. With this in mind I so felt for the putative Jefferson descendants that Mr Lanier writes about, knocking on the door of the Monticello Association as they only "know' what they know. God-speed to them in their mission.

    1. Thanks! And well said. DNA is a powerful means of filling in some of the blank spaces and resolving certain mysteries. I recommend DNA testing for everyone! You and I are probably related, given my family on the distaff side are also related to early New Jersey and Deerfield families. Most people of European descent are related to the same handful of families dating back to the 11th century (if memory serves). It's my hope a more comprehensive genealogy of the Hemings family will be published as more and more descendants are tested. And I wish the former owners of the Harriet cameo would step forward and speak to its provenance, if possible, and settle this particular mystery.

  20. Sally Hemings herself had a white father, and her mother had a white father and an African mother. There are various descriptions of her hair and while she was referred to by some as "dusky Sally" she was likely pretty light skinned with "white" features. We know from her Harriet's brother, Madison's account that she was sent off and disappeared into the white world at age 21. So it's unlikely she had any obvious African features.

  21. Harriet Hemings was one-eighth African, and therefore "legally white". At the time, Sally was classified as a "quadroon", with only one quarter African heritage. I think blue eyes were highly possible. Sally Hemings had "amber" eyes. Her daughter, Harriet, was my second cousin 5X removed as her father Thomas Jefferson was my first cousin, six times removed.