In the 1700s, class divisions became much more prominent in the English colonies. People with substantial property, or successful businesses, collected more and more of the colony’s wealth. This created a great divide in the social fabric of the colonies.
This portrait depicts the Rapalje children, descendants of some of the first settlers of New Amsterdam. They moved in the upper circles of British New York society.
While little is known about the artist John Durand, records indicate that he was a highly sought-after artist who painted portraits for many of New York’s most prominent families. The very existence of this portrait indicates that the Rapalje children lived lives of privilege and luxury compared with children of other social classes.
About the Image
Pictured, from left to right, are 11-year-old Garret, 13-year-old George, 6-year-old Anne, and 16-year-old Jacques. Their father, Garret Rapalje, was one of the many merchants of Dutch descent who found success trading for the British Empire. He also served as an assistant alderman in the 1760s. Their mother, born Helena De Nyse, was a descendant of another family with roots in the Dutch era. Rapalje commissioned this portrait by the noted American portraitist John Durand. It is considered one of his finest works and is his only known group portrait.
The portrait is full of small clues about the lives of the children. Their relaxed pose, which is unusual in colonial portraits, indicates their confidence in their status and upbringing, and their arrangement, which just barely fits within the canvas, suggests that they share a close family bond. Their brightly colored, textured clothing was likely made from fabric imported by their father. The young men are all dressed as colonial gentlemen in miniature, indicating their future place in society. Young Anne holds a rose, a sly reference to her fertility and fitness for marriage.
alderman: An elected member of a city council.
merchant: A person involved in buying and selling large quantities of goods.
What does the clothing of these children reveal about the expectations of their roles in colonial society?
What does the existence of this portrait reveal about the lives of the Rapalje family?
What is the problem with relying on portraits to learn about the lives of people long ago?