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Setting the Standard

Early pictures popularized the ways that Americans represented gender and power

Portrait of Martha and George Washington
Joseph Hiller Sr., Lady Washington and His Excellency George Wahington Esqr,mezzotint, ca. 1777, reproduction, courtesy of the Print Collection, The New York Public Library

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, ordinary people encountered few pictures of women. Paintings of white women adorned the walls of wealthy homes and sometimes were copied for the public, but few female faces became famous. Artists and print sellers often featured elite white men as subjects because the public wanted to buy portraits of their leaders.

The president’s portrait conveyed ideals of republican political virtue, while Martha Washington’s presented an idealized version of womanhood. She was among the few women whose face was familiar to the public. Americans recognized her support of her husband’s work as a hostess and domestic figure: a kind of founding mother.

Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, engraving, 1773 Printed for A. Bell, bookseller, Aldgate; sold by Messrs. Cox and Berry Printed Materials Collection, Schlesinger Library.

In contrast, Phillis Wheatley, born in Senegambia and sold into slavery in Boston, became the first woman in America to have her portrait printed with her own work. Her 1773 book, Poems on Various Subjects, featured her likeness to convince skeptical readers that Wheatley, an enslaved black woman, wrote these poems.

Phillis Wheatley’s patrons paid for this engraving to prove that an African woman wrote the book. In the portrait, Wheatley writes at a desk, while the frame’s text reminds viewers that she is enslaved.

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