ISSN 2150-5128

University of Delaware Research Online Magazine


University of Delaware Research Online Magazine


The Hidden Lives Within a Portrait
The Hidden Lives Within a Portrait
She was impossible to miss with her bright eyes, flushed cheeks and that dress—full and flowing, with a pattern of fanciful olive flowers strewn about the lustrous silver background. She was Anne Shippen Willing, and what she wore for her 1746 portrait would lead historian Zara Anishanslin on a journey to the far corners of the world—and launch a bold new way of looking at the past.


Portrait of a Woman in Silk
Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016) by Zara Anishanslin, assistant professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware.

  Tracey Bryant

Director for Research Communications, UD Office of Communications and Marketing

Anne Shippen Willing was at the height of colonial American society when her portrait was painted in 1746. This woman of privilege was married to Charles Willing, a wealthy merchant who would serve as Philadelphia’s mayor multiple times, among numerous other business and political achievements. The picture of health and abundance, she would give birth to their eighth child (of 11 children) a year later.

Anishanslin, assistant professor of history and art history at the University, first fell under Mrs. Willing’s gaze at Winterthur Museum while completing a project on early American style for her doctorate in history, which she received in 2009.

“You can’t miss her,” says Anishanslin, whose assignment was to sketch a piece of furniture in the room. “Her dress actually matches the furniture quite nicely.”

Fast-forward two years, and imagine Anishanslin’s surprise during a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London when she spotted the original watercolor of that flamboyant floral pattern from Mrs. Willing’s silk dress.

“I knew I had seen it before,” she says, and then remembered where. Intrigued, she returned to Winterthur and sought out all the information she could find on the painting.

And so began a global connect-the-dots that would bring to life not only Anne Shippen Willing, but also the designer of the silk dress, the weaver of the cloth and the portrait artist. The original product of her fastidious work was her doctoral dissertation, which she then evolved into the acclaimed book Portrait of a Woman in Silk, published by Yale University Press in 2016 and now available in paperback.

The book reveals insightful details about the four individuals whose lives intertwined within a silk dress, as well as the history of early America, trade, women’s roles, slavery and the colonies’ relationship with the rest of the world.

Because few letters, diaries or other historical documents remain to tell their stories, Anishanslin focused on what does exist—the visual material—to recreate her subjects’ lives. The work took her to unexpected places.

“Textiles are so closely linked to the human body,” she says. “Imaginatively reconstructing the past through what people wore is an intimate thing.”

Anna Maria Garthwaite, the designer who created the vivid floral pattern, was from Spitalfields—the silk-weaving center in London’s East End. Her work was a subject of national pride in an ongoing battle for superiority between English and French silk designers.

Simon Julins, the London weaver who made the silk cloth, lived only two blocks from Garthwaite’s townhouse and both were longtime members of the congregation of Christ Church Spitalfields. (As part of her research, Anishanslin even asked the current owner of Garthwaite’s house if she might see inside, which the owner graciously allowed.)

New England painter Robert Feke must have been proud of his portrait of Mrs. Willing because he signed it. After all, Anishanslin found, Feke applied his signature to only a handful of works.

As Anishanslin unearthed and pieced together “bits of archival detritus,” she had to take a leap of faith now and then. “You can’t go down every rabbit hole, or you will never get out.”

She also says she couldn’t have accomplished her detective work without the assistance of generous museum curators, librarians, even an apothecarist.

“Research is a really solitary thing,” she says, “but it is a group effort as well. You need to rely on the kindness of strangers and great fellowship.”

Anishanslin says the moral of her story is that we should visit museums and really think about what we see.

“When you look at a portrait, it’s not just a portrait,” she says. “There are all of these really fascinating stories embedded in each object.”


She was 36 when her portrait was painted. Eight years later, her husband died unexpectedly of a fever when their youngest child was only a toddler. She never remarried. She eventually moved out of her sizable house and lived with an unmarried daughter, Abigail, in a small house on Pine Street in Philadelphia until her death at 81.

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Portrait of Anne Shippen Willing (Mrs. Charles Willing), 1746, Philadelphia, PA, Oil paint on canvas, Museum purchase with funds provided by Alfred E. Bissell in memory of Henry Francis du Pont, 1969.134

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