Sweetser Family Portraits
On exhibit now at the Simeon Strong House
Portraits are a window into the past. They not only give us information about the people in them, but they also tell us about the world in which these people lived. As both artistic objects and cultural artifacts, they shed light on the various social, aesthetic and economic elements that influenced their creation.
These three paintings show Luke Sweetser, one of the leading figures in Amherst in the nineteenth century; his wife, Abigail Sweetser (née Munsell); their son, John Howard Sweetser, and their niece Abigail Wood. The solo portrait of Luke Sweetser and the group of Abigail Sweetser with the two children are signed and dated by the artist, “H. R. Snyder 1844.” The third work is a later solo portrait of Abigail Sweetser, probably painted by a different artist. The works were most likely commissioned by Luke Sweetser to hang in the family home at 81 Lessey Street. There they functioned as important family documents, recording the likenesses of their sitters and indicating their status. They are also reflections of the boom in portraits that occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century in America that was a result of the growing economy. However, in the second part of the nineteenth century, painted portraits would be superseded by photography, a recent invention that offered cheaper and more accurate images.
The two solo portraits were gifted to the Amherst Historical Society at the end of the nineteenth century by John Howard Sweetser. A photograph shows their display in early June 1899 in the Strong House. Taken out of their original setting, their meaning and intention had changed. Rather than taking pride of place in the home of their owners, they are placed together on a desk in a crowded room where they are just two more objects intended to signify the broader history of Amherst. The works were subsequently joined by the portrait of Abby Sweetser and the two children, perhaps given to the Society following John Howard Sweetser’s death.
Luke Sweetser was born on October 28, 1800 in Athol, Massachusetts, and died on July 27, 1882 in Amherst. At the time he sat for this portrait, he was established as the leading trader in Amherst, and an important member of the community. The third of seven children, he came to Amherst in the winter of 1820-21, as a student at Amherst Academy. A few months later, in the spring of 1821, he became a clerk at the general store of Hezekiah Wright Strong, the largest shop in Amherst. Three years later, he bought out the business after Strong became insolvent, continuing it under his own name. He would run the store with various partners until 1857, when he sold it to William and George Cutler, with whom he was then in business. He subsequently turned his attention to farming and raising stock.
As one of the most prominent businessmen in Amherst, he also came to play a leading role in the public life of the town. For example, in 1833 he was elected as a selectman, one of the board of officials which operated as the main administrative authority of Amherst, and in 1848 he was the representative to the General Court, the state legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. From 1851 to 1871 he served as a deacon at the First Congregational Church. He helped to found the Hampshire Agricultural Society and in 1852 was chosen as the president of the Amherst and Belchertown Railroad company, the first corporation to build a railway line to Amherst. For over thirty years he was also a member of the prudential committee of Amherst College, which, amongst other duties, was responsible for erecting college buildings.
His public persona was, however, somewhat different from how he conducted himself in private. Susan Dickinson (b. 1830), sister-in-law and a close friend of Emily Dickinson, in an unpublished manuscript on Amherst society around the 1850s, wrote about attending tea parties at the Sweetsers’ home, which, at the time, were one of the few social outlets available. She remembers that “The stately parlors of Deacon Luke Sweetser struck rather the grand note in these affairs,” and recalls him as “a picturesque looking person, with a profusion of grey hair and a full beard.” She wrote further that, “although in ordinary daily life he bore himself with the traditional severity of the at-the-time accepted Old-Testament doctrines, at those tea parties he was literally wreathed in smiles of friendly welcome and approval.”
Abigail (Abby) Tyler Munsell was born in Lee, Massachusetts in July 1804. It is likely that she attended a private boarding school, perhaps in Amherst. She married Luke Sweetser on December 3, 1833, and in 1835 had a son, John Howard Sweetser. Susan Dickinson remembers Abby Sweetser as “a most happy, genial hostess, though of a certain pomposity, [who] always received us in gloves, usually of a light purple shade, with a rather flippant hand-shake and the long, low backward dipping curtsey, a relic of her gay education.” She remarked further that Abby Sweetser “never sat down at supper, but moved about among us, lest there should be an empty cup or an unfilled plate that escaped the derelict eye of the servants, all the time waving aloft a remarkable feather fan sent her from a thousand up the Nile by an old friend, she gaily affirmed.” At these events, conversation was the primary entertainment, though sometimes “just at the end of the evening the open piano suggested a little music as desirable, and voices somewhat decadent sang sweetly.” Abby Sweetser died in Amherst, just a few months after her husband, on October 19, 1882.
John Howard Sweetser was about nine years old when he sat to be painted. He went on to attend Amherst College but left in his junior year to go into business with his uncle, Joseph Sweetser, in New York, though he was later granted his A.B degree. In 1860 he married Cornelia Peck, a regular correspondent of Emily Dickinson’s, with whom he had three children. He died on March 4, 1904 in New York. It was he who gave the two portraits of his parents to the Amherst Historical Society.
Abigail (Abby) Maria Wood was Luke Sweetser’s niece. Born on October 12, 1830 in Westminster, Massachusetts, she came to live with the Sweetsers in 1834, after the death of her father. She attended Amherst Academy and became a close childhood friend of Emily Dickinson, although they would later drift apart after Abby joined Amherst’s First Congregational Church and became increasingly focused on her religious life. In 1855 she married the Reverend Daniel Bliss and the following year they went to Syria as missionaries. Together they founded the Syrian Protestant College, which opened in December 1866 and is now The American University of Beirut. She maintained contact with her family in Amherst, sending back souvenirs to her aunt and uncle; as Susan Dickinson remembers, “Mrs. Sweetser reveled in the proud handing about of curios and Syrian relics sent over to her by her niece.” In 1873 she returned for a year with her four children, two of whom would later graduate from Amherst College. She died in Beirut on April 12, 1915, having devoted many years to missionary work in Syria.