Charlotte Smith by Mary Menessier Beck

Artist almost certainly Mary Menessier Beck (c1755-1833)

Dated “September 6 1809 Lexington Kentucky”

Watercolor on Paper 3 1/2” x 3” oval paper size,

book: 6 7/8’ x 4” x 1/2″


This small portrait of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) is a later pasted frontispiece in her American edition of “Rural Walks: in Dialogues intended for the use of young persons”, published at Philadelphia in 1795 by Wrigley & Berriman being sold through the store of Thomas Stephens. This a complete copy with paper coverings and bed tick binding which is presumedly quite old though likely a later handy remedy to a shaken book. Paper covers are chipped, torn with losses and blunting to the book’s corners indicating many times referenced though kept dry, free from critter invasion, and complete regarding content. If selling as a bookseller the condition would rate poor.

The frontispiece portrait is a faithful copy, as noted by the artist, of a portrait of the author from a George Romney likeness. The portrait’s condition is very good. The brown ink scripted legend reads “Copied by M _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Lexington Kentucky September 6 1809”. The missing signature appears to be a puzzling deliberate removal. No surrounding trauma nor evidence of chewing by bug or beast. The top remaining portion of the two adjacent letters following the “M” appear to conform to an “a” and a “r”. Directly below the word “Volume” is scripted an “M” in brown ink with the following letters now vanished. An old inscription in pencil above the word “RURAL” on title page is presumedly an early owner or the bed tick binder. A close up image of this inscription is among support images.

It is a common occurrence among those with a library that lent books are occasionally not returned. Generally this slight is probably initially innocent from someone who intended to read the book but never got to it. Reasons vary though later forgotten or too embarrassed to return considering the time lapse may lead the failure list. One possible explanation of the vandalism might be that the book was once pilfered or borrowed by a student who destroyed evidence of ownership so not to be exposed as the culprit to others that might happen upon it. The actual story will never be known though the portrait appears painted by an academically trained artist at Lexington in 1809. The other known candidate to qualify that classification would be her husband George. Unsure of Samuel Dearborn’s training, who was around, though style disqualifies him comparing this portrait and the “M” leading character of the scripted name eliminates both. l know of no other work attributed to Mary Beck.

Both Beck and Smith were progressive instructors of youngsters. Beck chose the classroom where Smith, a poet and novelist, was broader in scope. Mary Beck born French married, an Englishman, George Beck and later followed him to America where both taught and painted. Ms. Beck twice exhibited two landscape paintings at the Royal Academy in 1790 and 1793 prior to her departure for America. George landed at Norfolk, Va. in 1795 with Mary soon following. The couple made several stays in Pa. Va. & Ohio before settling at Lexington, Ky. by 1805. The longest prior to Lexington was a seven year Philadelphia tenure where she opened a school for young women. George also tutored and taught while actively pursuing a career as a landscape artist. A tough sell in the age of portraiture, though two large works were purchased by George & Martha Washington. Mary later opened a boarding academy for girls soon after arriving at Lexington as evidenced by a Feb. 5,1805 ad in the Ky. Gazette announcing the sale of books for instruction which could be had at the school. Twice a year after her husband’s death, in Dec. of 1812, she held exhibitions of her works until moving and becoming a head mistress at a school in Lancaster, Ky. in 1826. An unidentified body of her Kentucky work hopefully still exists. Her landscape paintings possibly will never be identified unless noted by an early owner. A miniature portrait though could by comparison to this work.

Mary Beck’s school offered a course curriculum that was seldom available from female academies of the day. An ad in the Lexington Reporter on April 6th, 1813 informed prospective pupils and guardians that each day for a year four branches of learning would be offered.

  • Year one: Spelling, reading, writing, and music.
  • Year two: Arithmetic, grammar, history, and music.
  • Year three: Bookkeeping, rhetoric, astronomy, and music.
  • Year four: Geometry, belles letters, geography, and music.
  • Year five: Perspective, logic, natural history, and music.
  • Year six: Drawing, composition, mythology, and music.
  • Year seven: Painting, poetry, universal history, natural history, and music.

Beck’s academy dovetails into the city’s architecture along with the fine and decorative arts which prompted a traveler to declare Lexington the Athens of the West. Within the first quarter of the 19th century, a generation removed from the pioneer period, a renaissance occurred in Central Kentucky fueled by artisans and educators of Lexington on the edge of the country’s Western frontier.

Charlotte Smith’s “Rural Walks” is the tale of a young single mother, Mrs. Woodfield, with two daughters who is doing it right though struggling a subsistence existence. She unexpectingly takes in her brother’s daughter after the death of his wife. The burden is significant as her niece has been raised frivolously at a much higher station of the London social strata and now abruptly fostered to the country among humble surroundings. Adding to the burden is the cost of boarding her niece in an already tight situation aggravated by the niece’s ill humor. Mrs. Woodfield tactfully takes her niece and two daughters on rural walks through the countryside engaging the three in conversations regarding the flora and villagers always with a life’s message for digestion. Her over indulged niece slowly pivots, swayed by the aunt’s composed wisdom, kindness, and an exemplary sense of values which is expressed through a first person narrative. If ever adapted to the stage, for children’s theater, it a play adults too would find engaging.

Smith considered herself a legal prostitute having been sold off at age 15 to a husband who fathered her 12 children. She spent time in debtors prison with him and the dozen because of his indebtedness. She eventually shed him though not before supporting the entire family after fleeing to France to escape creditors. Her later works were dedicated to children’s novels which expressed Christian values free of fear or reward. The British class system and gender inequities were targets of her writings which are visited in this work.

Most of the information on Beck is gleamed from Edna Talbott Whitley’s Ky. Antebellum Portraiture page 629 & 630 and the same author’s article published by the “Register of the Ky. Historical Society” Vol. 67 Jan. 1969 pages 20-36 titled “George Beck: An Eighteenth Century Painter”. Again in the Winter 1979 “Register” Whitley’s “Mary Beck and the Female Mind” pages 15-24. Both register essays are recommended reading. Information on Smith lifted off google searches. See Delphi Classics Image of Romney’s Charlotte Smith’s portrait, among support photos, who used the same artist source as Mary Beck’s image of Smith. Beck likely had an engraved source (perhaps hand colored) as the palette is quite close so it to a possibility she had viewed Romney’s portrait while living in London.