Notes on collections at the RIHS
or, Love, Loss, and What She Didn’t Wear
She gazes serenely from the wall at the John Brown House Museum, her place on the turning of the stair affording her a panoramic view of the comings and goings of staff and visitors. Eleanor Cozzens, daughter of Leonard Cozzens, Newport’s most prominent tailor, married painter Robert Feke in 1742. Feke was born in Oyster Bay on Long Island in 1705. An 1859 account in the Newport Daily News tells of a young man born into a Quaker family who became a Baptist, ventured to sea and served time as a prisoner of war in Spain, where he learned to paint.
Whatever the truth of this romantic story, Robert and Eleanor (a Quaker) married in Newport and had three sons and two daughters, including Phila Feke, who married John Townsend, the cabinet maker.
Feke had a busy career painting wealthy merchants between Philadelphia (including Tench Francis, now at the Met) and Boston, but his last known paintings seem to be the unfinished portraits of the artist and his wife in the RIHS Collection.
The portrait of Mrs. Feke was made between 1750 and 1751, but of the original composition, only the face and cap are Feke’s work; the dress and hands were over painted later, probably along lines originally sketched out by Feke. The lovely silk-satin gown with the fine linen kerchief and the shift with its neat stroke gathers at the wrist bands were never Mrs. Feke’s: they’re a convention, an invention, and not her “real” clothes.
Family lore told of the painter leaving New England for Bermuda or Barbados, ostensibly to improve his health, but there is no record of his death, and no grave has been found.
Eleanor Feke lived in Newport until 1804, for time with her grandson, John Feke Townsend, and as I pass her on the stairs, I wonder sometimes what she thought, and what she knew, about her husband’s death. Did she ever hear from him after he left? Or was she left to wonder what had happened to him, until she simply gave up hoping?
Her face suggests forbearance, even stoicism, along with a solid, slightly plain beauty. There’s grace in her bearing, as much as in her costume.
~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections