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Portraits of John and Elizabeth Freake (and their baby)

Robert W. Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843, oil on canvas, 12’ x 18’ (Rotunda, U.S. Capitol)
Robert W. Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843, oil on canvas, 12 x 18 feet (Rotunda, U.S. Capitol)
Elementary school history books in the United States might give young students a slightly misleading impression of what the earliest Puritans in North America—those who history calls the Pilgrims—were really like. If images in these texts are to be believed, the men wore black pants and matching waistcoats that were embellished with plain rectangular lace collars. When feeling particularly formal, these Puritans would often wear a plain black hat that was only decorated with an inexplicable buckle in the front. Puritan women dressed in similarly austere attire, seldom straying from dark, somber clothing.

Mr. Freake

While this may have been true for the earliest Puritans in North America, it is significantly less accurate for the Puritans who came to live in the northeast as the seventeenth century moved onwards. This fallacy is visually demonstrated by portraits completed about 1670 by an unidentified artist called the Freake Painter, an artist so named because of his most well known sitters—members of the Freake family. These two paintings, both begun in 1671, depict John Freake in the first portrait, and his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Mary in the second. In many ways, these pendant portraits eloquently speak as to what it meant to be part of the upper-middle-class elite in Colonial New England during the final decades of the seventeenth century.
Freak painter, Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, c. 1671 and 1674 (Worcester Art Museum)
Unknown artist (known as Freake painter), John Freake, c. 1671 and 1674, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 3/4 inches / 108 x 93.3 cm  (Worcester Art Museum)
We can learn much about John Freake (1631-1674), his perception of self, and his place within society through a careful analysis of his portrait. Born in England, Freake immigrated to Boston in 1658 when in his mid twenties and became a merchant and attorney of significant wealth. Indeed, before his death he owned two homes, a mill and brew house, and profitable shares in six mercantile ships. Clearly, he was a man of assets and wealth, and this is reflected in his attire. To begin, Freake wears a fine velvet coat that is dark brown in color rather than the more stereotypical black most of his Puritan brethren may have worn 50 years before. In addition, his coat is decorated with more than two-dozen silver buttons, both along the front of the jacket and atop the pocket flaps. The tailor—either one in colonial Boston or, more likely, one across the Atlantic in England—embellished each buttonhole with expensive silver thread.
Freake’s expensive coat is but one indicator of his elevated social and economic status. In addition, Freake wears a fashionable white muslin shirt with puffed sleeves and elaborate crenulated cuffs. His collar is not the plain, rectangular one we might expect on the basis of our elementary school history books, and is instead a highly decorated and elaborate lace collar imported from Europe, likely from Venice, Italy. Rather than descend from his throat to his sternum, this collar instead circles his neck and stretches across both of Freake’s shoulders. The ornate silver brooch Freake touches with his left hand and the gloves he holds with his right—in addition to the ring he wears on the pinky of his left hand—all speak to his wealth and his status as a gentleman.

Roundhead or Cavalier? Look at the hair!

Thus, Freake’s clothing announces something important about his prosperity. Likewise, his hair comments on his sense of religious identity. During the end of the seventeenth century, there were two distinct hairstyles that helped identify those who wore them. If one were to wear their hair in short manner, they announced themselves to be a Roundhead, a visual representation of Puritan austerity. In contrast, long hair—or, the wearing of a wig—announced the man as one who was a morally questionable Cavalier. With these two extremes in mind—the Puritanical Roundhead and the suspicious Cavalier—John Freake comfortably resides in the middle. Neither too short nor too long, Freake’s hair—and it is that, rather than an artificial wig—announces his morality and religiosity squarely in the middle, a kind of hirsute juste milieu (middle ground).
Thus, Freake’s clothing and hair does much to identify him during the end of the seventeenth century. His attire is fashionable, but not overly extravagant. Freake was among those who believed that his prosperity in life was due to God’s blessing, and as that was the case, it was not inappropriate to dress in a way that highlighted that divine favor. Likewise, his hair identifies him as religiously moderate; neither excessively devout nor liturgically loose.
Freak painter, Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, c. 1671 and 1674 (Worcester Art Museum)
Freake painter, Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, c. 1671 and 1674, oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 36 3/4 inches / 108 x 93.3 cm (Worcester Art Museum)

Mrs. Freake

Similarly, the artist has depicted John’s wife, Elizabeth, in a way that highlights her appropriate wealth—and thus her favorable position within the eyes of God—and her religious moderateness. Like her husband, Elizabeth wears unexpectedly fine attire. A small amount of blond hair is visible underneath her white lace hood. That hood, tied nearly underneath a slightly protruding chin, brings visual attention to the white collar and the striking white lace that covers most of the bodice of her silver taffeta dress. Underneath her skirt is a striking red-orange velvet underskirt that is embroidered with a gold, lace-like pattern. She wears a white blouse that features lace cuffs on the sleeves, while red and black bows provide a visual splash of color and contrast against an otherwise somewhat achromatic ensemble.
Like her husband, Elizabeth’s portrait is filled with baubles that speak to their affluence and to the family’s growth. She wears a triple-stranded string of pearls about her neck, a gold ring on her finger and a beautiful four-stranded garnet bracelet can be seen on her left thumb and wrist. She sits on a fashionable chair, and a Turkey-work rug can be seen resting on the back of the chair. Although Elizabeth currently holds her infant Mary, radiograph x-ray photography shows that she originally held a fan. That the painting has been modified—fan out, new baby who wears a fashionable dress in—tells us much about the extravagant cost of having one’s portrait commissioned in the seventeenth century. It was more practical to have your daughter painted into an old portrait than to pay for a new one.

Displays of wealth

A twenty-first-century audience might scoff at these images, thinking them, perhaps, too flat, too inanimate, and too serious for our own particular aesthetics. However, this pair of images powerfully speaks to the Freakes understanding of their place in their world while at the same time dismissing our mistaken stereotypes of seventeenth-century Puritans.  The Freakes are not an austere couple, entirely clad in black. Instead, they display their wealth—both in dress and in accessories—in a moderate and acceptable way that suggests divine blessing. In addition, while we might dismiss this artist as an unaccomplished limner (an artist with no or little formal training), he was instead a talented portraitist who was working within a rich tradition of Elizabethan painting. His images helped situate his sitters within a distinguished and rich traditional of English court portraiture.
Essay by Dr. Bryan Zygmont

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    In the seventh paragraph, what does "whilered" mean, in the phrase "She wears a white blouse that features lace cuffs on the sleeves, whilered and black bows provide a visual splash of color and contrast" ? Is it supposed to be "whirled"? Or does it mean a color, since the bows are black and orange-like?
    (8 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Patricia Huddleston
    There is a misspelling and a grammatical error in this article. The word "brooch" intended as indiacting a pin is not spelled "broach". Also, in the first paragraph in the section on Mrs. Freake, eye's should be eyes (plural, not possessive).
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I would imagine that "using the restroom" would have been a highly laborious task given how many thick layers of clothing that the puritans would have had to wear! Was there any clothing in ancient times that would have been easier to use than these sorts of frocks...Toga's for instance?
    (0 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Cilla Vance.
      Actually I'm not so sure about that. because the women's skirts were held out by their skirts (and hoops if it was a special occasion) that I think it actually wouldn't have been so hard to step over a chamber pot. The men also, often just wore breeches, and when they did wear robes, they were thinner, because voluminous skirts would have been feminine.
      You would probably shock them if you mentioned togas ;P Considering how many layers they wore and long sleeves, long skirts, and bonnets, the flimsy dresses and thin togas of ancient times would have been considered immodest.
      (5 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lauren Swalec
    Mrs. Freake is supposedly wearing a 'silver taffeta dress,' but I can only see a green dress. Is this because of how the portrait has been photographed? Or has the silver paint changed to a green color over time? How do we know that the dress is supposed to be silver?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Cilla Vance.
    Maybe it's because I'm short-sighted, but I don't see a single pearl. Can anybody else see them? If so, where are they?
    (0 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Henryoneida
    Who discovered the 13 colonies
    (0 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user Jonathan Green
      Traditionally, when we tell the story of “Colonial America,” we are talking about the English colonies along the Eastern seaboard. That story is incomplete–by the time Englishmen had begun to establish colonies in earnest, there were plenty of French, Spanish, Dutch and even Russian colonial outposts on the American continent–but the story of those 13 colonies (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) is an important one. It was those colonies that came together to form the United States.
      (0 votes)