Sarah Weston Seaton and Washington, DC, Around 1815

Sarah Weston Seaton with Her Children Augstine and Julia / Charles Bird King / c. 1815 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Bequest of Armida B. Colt
Sarah Weston Seaton with Her Children Augstine and Julia / Charles Bird King / c. 1815 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Bequest of Armida B. Colt

Charles Bird King’s portrait of Sarah Weston Seaton (1789–1863) and her children Augustine (1810–1835) and Julia (1812–1889) portrays the young family in a light and playful tone. Mrs. Seaton wears a dress with an empire waist, a style that was fashionable when this painting was made. Her white gown is decorated with a small bouquet of red and white flowers, and she is seated on a red velvet sofa, where she has her left arm around her daughter, Julia.  While perching on the back of the sofa, Julia looks at her mother as she gestures toward her brother, Augustine, who dangles an enticing bunch of cherries just beyond her reach. Reflective of this mood of good-hearted mischief, Augustine holds in his right hand a small book, the title of which we can decipher as The Art of Teasing Mad[e] Easy Washing[ton] 18 . . . , a gentle indication of the role of this older brother.

The painting, a study in domestic harmony, allows the National Portrait Gallery to draw on the new currents in American history that focus on women’s roles in the early nineteenth century.  Historians such as Catherine Allgor have brought attention to how prominent women in Washington, D.C., including First Lady Dolley Madison and Sarah Weston Seaton, created social spaces essential for the political work carried out by their husbands. Seaton’s portrait was thoroughly researched by Dr. Ellen G. Miles, curator emerita at the National Portrait Gallery, for a 2011 exhibition; her research is reprinted here.

Sarah Weston (Gales) Seaton was the daughter of Joseph Gales, publisher of the Raleigh (NC) Register, a newspaper that supported Thomas Jefferson. In 1809, she married William Winston Seaton, a colleague of her father’s. Three years later, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Mr. Seaton and Sarah’s brother, Joseph Gales Jr., became co-owners of the National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.). Sarah, fluent in French and Spanish, at times translated documents for the newspaper, which supported James Madison and James Monroe and, later, William Henry Harrison and Millard Fillmore. Under their editorship, the paper covered congressional proceedings during the years 1812–29 and was the official printer for Congress until shortly after 1828, when the paper opposed Andrew Jackson for president. The Seatons played leading roles in Washington’s political and cultural affairs. One important event was the reception in 1824 for the Marquis de Lafayette held at their new home on E Street, NW, between Seventh and Eighth Streets. Their house included a living room, two drawing rooms, a dining room, three wine cellars, and a conservatory. William Seaton served as mayor of Washington from 1840 to 1850 and as treasurer of the fledgling Smithsonian Institution. Of their eleven children, several predeceased their parents; Augustine died at age twenty-five after a long illness contracted while serving with the army in Arkansas Territory. Julia married Columbus Munroe in 1839 and died in Washington in 1889.

Charles Bird King was a newcomer to Washington when he painted this portrait, but he would soon become one of the capital’s major resident portrait painters. Having studied painting in London with Benjamin West, King came to Washington in December 1814 after living briefly in Philadelphia. He left before the summer in 1815 but returned in the winter of 1816–17, finally settling in Washington in 1818. His studio was then at Twelfth and F Street, NW, a few blocks from the homes of the Seatons and the Galeses. King painted important political figures and distinguished Washingtonians, among them Joseph Gales Jr. and his wife, Sarah Lee; in 1830 he also designed the Gales’s new Washington home, Eckington.4 King is best known, however, for the portraits he painted of members of the tribal delegations that visited Washington in the 1820s and 1830s. The paintings, which were made for the War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, were destroyed in an 1865 fire at the Smithsonian Institution and are known only through King’s own copies and from lithographs.