The Iliad in Early America: A Wax and Shell Tableau, 1783

I have been fascinated by an object from the dawn of the American Independence period, a wax and shellwork tableau created by Samuel Fraunces as a gift for Martha Custis Washington. Fraunces (1722 or 1723–10 October 1795), a chef and restaurateur who was later household steward to President Washington, established in 1762 the Queen Charlotte’s Head Tavern in New York City. This tavern was the location of George Washington’s final address on December 4, 1783 to the officers of Continental Army, days before Washington resigned his military commission and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. On that same day in December, Fraunces wrote to George Washington alluding to this intricate object: “I most earnestly beg your Excellency will order about the Carriage of a small piece of Shell Work which I have lately compleated for Mrs Washington purposely—whose acceptance of it will confer the greatest Honor on me—the [feild] is Hector and Andromache adorned with Shell Flowers the collection of a number of years—.” The gift was conveyed to Martha Washington in 1785 and she reportedly placed it on her bedside bureau; it was later acquired by her grand-daughter Martha Custis Peter and her husband Thomas Peter and has remained ever since at Tudor Place in Georgetown. (Note 1)

Recently conserved and restored, the elaborate object depicts one of the the most famous scenes in Homer’s Iliad, the moment in Book Six when the great warrior Hector poignantly takes his leave from his wife Andromache and their newborn baby Astyanax, held by a nursemaid. Hector resists Andromache’s pleas to remain within the relative safety of the city walls, even as he prophesies the fall of Troy, his own death in combat, and the enslavement of his beloved wife by the besieging Achaeans. The scene would have been instantly familiar to educated Americans. Alexander Pope’s English language translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey sold 20,000 copies in the colonies in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution (Winter 2005). Earlier vernacular, illustrated translations of Homer circulating in the colonies included George Chapman’s version (1598-1611) and John Ogilby’s Homer, His Iliads (1660).

Samuel Fraunces. Shell and Wax Tableau, c. 1783. Tudor Place collections.

The Genre of Shell Work

Fraunces’ tableau is an example of “Grotto work” or shell work, a genre that was developed in the 17th century and became increasingly popular during the 18th century. Sea shells were collected and carefully arrnaged to emulate flowers and trees, and to depicts classical scenes, encouraging the careful contemplation of natural specimens and literature. These pieces, sometimes referenced as Grotto-esques, emulated sea-carved natural grottos, which were thought to be a particularly compelling formations, often with mystical or mythological associations. Nearly all shellworks during this period to my knowledge were created by women, and were considered a significant component of female education. Many contained classical allusions. (see Keim 2004) The Chester County Historical Society for example, contains a shellwork titled, ““Calypso’s Grotto,“, created by schoolgirl Sarah Morris in 1764, representing the sea nymph who imprisoned Odysseus on her island in Homer’s Odyssey. (Baerman 2019).

A fascinating recent Master’s thesis by Brooke Baerman (2019) argues that 18th century shell-based grotto works tended to be complex microcosmic projections of women’s consciousness, subtly mapping interior female bodily space, including the reproductive tract. Architectural formations such as Greco-Roman temples, created by shells and wax work, she argues, evoked mysterious female power and sexuality in social acceptable, albeit oblique, registers.

Although Samuel Fraunces may have been unusual in his pursuit of this primarily female decorative form, his choice of a Homeric subject for the tableau was well in keeping with 18th century conventions.

Enigmatic Imagery

The imagery chosen by Fraunces is in many respects understandable, and in other ways puzzling. The scenario of Hector and Andromache’s parting would have been immediately understood as a supreme signifier of patriotic duty, highly applicable to the case of George Washington, who like Hector chose to leave behind the comforts to domestic bliss to face the mortal dangers of the battlefield. Hector, the bravest and noblest of Trojan heroes, was an obvious analogue for George Washington himself, whose feats in arms were increasingly celebrated in the later years of the American War of Independence. Similarly, Andromache would be understood as a clear counterpart to Martha Custis Washington, the epitome of a loyal wife on the home front as war raged. The decision to clothe the figurines in elaborate 18th century apparel was in keeping with iconographic conventions of the period; the well-known published English language versions of Homer similarly included illustrations depicting classical protagonists in contemporary clothing.

Having said that, there is something enigmatic about Fraunces’ decision to emphasize Book Six’s most haunting passage. The power of the scene for readers lies in the knowledge that Hector will within days perish at the hands of Achilles, that his baby Astyanax will be hurled to his death from the ramparts of the city, and that Andromache will face a long life of servitude (eventually becoming queen in a distant city). As Hector declaims to Andromache in Pope’s famous version,

Yet come it will, the day decreed by fates—
How my heart trembles while my tongue relates!—
The day when thou, imperial Troy! must bend,
And see thy warriors fall, thy glories end.
And yet no dire presage so wounds my mind,
…As thine, Andromache! thy griefs I dread,
I see thee trembling, weeping, captive led:
In Argive looms our battles to design,
And woes, of which so large a part was thine;
To bear the victor’s hard commands, or bring
The weight of water from Hyperia’s spring;
Then, while you groan beneath the load of life,
They cry, Behold, the mighty Hector’s wife!”

(Alexander Pope, Iliad, Book IV, p. 136)

How, we might wonder, would the darkness of this scene, envisioning the fall of Troy and the horrific fate of the hero’s spouse, seemed appropriate to Fraunces as a gift to Martha? Would it it have been read as an unfortunate omen that the newly independent states were similarly destined for defeat and subjugation and that Mrs. Washington too was destined for enslavement?

I speculate that during the many months or years that Fraunces labored to create the tableau, probably between 1781 and 1783, he may not have felt fully confident that the colonists’ cause would prevail. Working as an undercover intelligence agent for the Continental forces, Fraunces was well aware tha Washington’s forces continued to face vicissitudes in the face of overwhelming British military force on land and especially by sea, and that a victorious outcome was by no means assured. What Fraunces and his contemporaries would have been fully confident in, however, was that George Washington had chosen the path of honor, and that regardless of the ultimate fate of the American cause, Washington’s name, like Hector’s, would echo down through the ages as a paragon of selfless devotion to principles of martial duty. Again, as Pope presents Hector’s words,

“Me glory summons to the martial scene,
The field of combat is the sphere for men.
Where heroes war, the foremost place I claim,
The first in danger as the first in fame.”

(Pope, Iliad, Book IV, p. 137)

The tragic, even elegiac notes of the scene would thus perhaps have been considered appropriate to George Washington, who even if he died in combat would be assured his place as “first in fame,” whatever the fate of new republic, Similarly, Martha’s matchless reputation as a selfless spouse would remain unquestioned.

Another potentially discordant aspect of the scene is the fact that George Washington was widely known to be childless, so there was hardly a precise analogue to the baby Astyanax in the General’s parting from Martha and his household at Mount Vernon. It is perhaps for this reason that Fraunces chose not to to depict the famous moment in which Hector lifts aloft the baby in his arms to seek the gods’ blessings, a scene beloved by many previous and subsequent artists. In Fraunces’ rendition, the primary emphasis is on Hector and Andromache on the right, while the nursemaid is significantly off to the left of the stage, holding a baby that is just barely visible. The primary focus of the tableau is on Andromache on the far right, her left arm extended: the clear implication is that Martha Washington, as mother of the new republic, reigns triumphant. (The fact that all the viewers face towards the viewer’s left would seem to be consistent with the artist’s expectation that the work would be read as a text, from right to left, telling a story that anticipated the developing American story.)

The Classical Past and the American Revolution

This was not the first time Fraunces had molded wax figurines of classical subjects. During the summer of 1768, starting on July 21, Fraunces repeatedly advertised in The New York Journal that his recently opened Vaux Hall Gardens would feature a group of “magnificent wax figures, rich and elegantly dressed, according to the ancient Roman and present mode, which figures bear the most striking resemblance of real life and represent the great Roman General Publius Scipio, who conquered the City of Carthage, standing by his Tent, pitch’d in a Grove of Trees.” The assemblage depicted Scipio (popularly known as Scipio Africanus) surrounded by the captured leaders and generals of Carthage. Fraunces had already been working with shells by this period; the advertisement notes, “Also there are several very masterly pieces of Grotto work, composed of various shells, etc”.

New York Journal (July 21, 1768)

The summer of 1768, it should be noted, was a time of great political ferment in the colonies, and Fraunces, as an active member of the Sons of Liberty, would have been keenly aware of how much hung in the balance. In February of that year, Samuel Adams had circulated a letter opposing the Townshend Act and denouncing taxation without representation, an act of defiance that would lead to the Crown’-appointed Governor dissolving the Massachusetts General Court. During that summer, pressure was building in New York and Boston for a boycott of British goods. It seems possible that Fraunces intended the Cathaginian scene to be read allegorically, as an example of the fate awaiting tyrants.

The Pastoral and American Aristocracy

The parting of Hector and Andromache. An illustration to ‘L’Iliade d’Homère traduite en françois’, a French translation of the Iliad by Madame Dacier (Paris: Rigaud, 1711).

In contrast to most artistic depictions of Hector’s parting, the tableau does not depict the hero in armor or with shield and sword (see for example the 1711 French engraving above). Rather, the scene in Fraunces’ waxwork is of unalloyed bourgeois domesticity, the only hint of Hector/Washington’s martial status being a sash across his chest. Indeed, Fraunces chooses to embellish his figures with pastoral elements, presumably intended to honor the first couple upon their (presumed) retirement to Mount Vernon. Sheep, redolent of the blessings of peace, surround Hector and Andromache, and a lamb even nuzzles the hem of its mistresses’ bounteous dress. The couple appear to have entered the stage through classical columns in the center of the composition, draped with flowers and vines. On a branch just above Hector’s shoulder is perched an owl, familiar of the goddess Athena, its wings outspread in blessing of the heroic couple. (Given that Athena was the patron of Athens, the presence of her companion animal here may presage the Achaeans coming victory over the Trojans.)

Detail. Fraunces Tableau, showing owl

In his desire to honor the Washington’s, the royal lineage of Hector, son of King Priam and of Andromache, princess of Thebes, must have seemed appropriate to the artist and his contemporaries. Around the time Fraunces created the tableau, many of the Washington’s most fervent supporters saw them as the potential foundation of a new American aristocracy. The Order of the Cincinnati, composed of officers in the Continental Army, had been founded only a few months before Washington gave his parting December 1783 address to his officers. Washington would eventually promote reforms in the Order, including abolishing hereditary membership, precisely because he wished to be sen as uphold ing republican, as opposed to aristocratic values. Yet Fraunces, who would later serve as the first President’s steward in New York and Philadelphia, presumably felt that analogies between the Washington’s and the Trojan princely couple were entirely appropriate.

The Force of the Gift

The foundational anthropological theorist of the gift Marcel Mauss long ago noted that the gift embodies aspects of the persona of the donor, which will be transferred, in effect, into the personhood of the recipient; gifts are thus iconic of the relationship between giver and receiver, and may modulate or transform that relationship in complex ways. In this light, Samuel Fraunces’ decision to include in the tableau scores of tiny shells from his own collection, evidently from his home region in the Caribbean, suffused the object with elements of his own biography. The positioning of a loyal servant to the left of the royal couple might also be understood as the artist embedding himself within the gift, so that an aspect of his own being travels with it to Mount Vernon. (Note 2)

The artist may even have placed himself more directly within the gift. Given his surname and French heritage, Fraunces was presumably aware of the medieval and Renaissance French invented tradition (modeled on Virgil’s casting of Rome as founded by the Trojans) that Hector and Andromache’s son Astyanax had not perished at the Fall of Troy but had instead survived and, under the name of Francus, founded the royal lineage of the “Franks”. In Pierre de Ronsard’s 1572 epic La Franciade the god Jupiter saves the boy, who is renamed “Francus,” and after wedding a princess on Crete founds the royal French dynasty.: The poem begins:

“Sing for me that race Of French kings descended from Francion, Hector’s son and of Trojan stock/ Who in his tender childhood was called Astyanax /…tell me how many times on the seas (Despite Neptune and Juno) he overcame Fortune/ And how many times on solid ground he escaped From danger, before going on to build the walls of Paris”( (Phillip John Usher translation, 2010)

Perhaps Samuel Fraunces was thus inserting himself in effect into the position of the baby in arms (Astrynax/Francus), and implying that George and Martha Washington might think of him as their adopted son. It should be added that honoring the French royal family would have seemed entirely appropriate to American patriots after the French navy’s pivotal intervention at Yorktown.

Race and Slavery

Historians have debated if Samuel Fraunces was of African descent. He was from the Caribbean (possibly from Barbados or Haiti) and was known as “Black Sam.” (His tavern is sometimes called “Black Sam’s” in contemporary accounts.) The 1790 census lists him as owning one slave, and in 1784 he advertised the auction of a fourteen year old male slave. He is listed as white in official records, and was a member of Trinity Church, which prohibited blacks from full membership, yet he is referenced as mulatto or negro in journalistic and other unofficial accounts. W.E.B. DuBois strongly suspected he was of African heritage. It seems likely he was a light skinned man of color. Fraunces was certainly a most fascinating “shape shifter” during the Revolutionary War; working as a spy for the American cause, he contributed to the unmasking of Benedict Arnold and foiled a major assassination attempt against George Washington. (Note 3)

Regardless of the racial background of the artist, the problem of slavery does seem to hover around the entire work. The classical nursemaid is depicted as white, but nursemaids at plantations such as Mount Vernon during this era would of course have overwhelmingly been enslaved women of color. The documented use of sea shells from the Caribbean in the composition may allude to the wealth of the West Indies, so key to the prosperity of the new republic, a wealth that was anchored in enormity of slave-based plantations throughout the west Atlantic world. The wealth of the Washington’s, like that of the Trojans and the Archaens as recorded in Homer, depended on a complex system of enslavement, rank, and labor extraction.

Hence, a fascinating irony: the shadow that lurks over the parting scene in Book Six of the Iliad is the anticipated terror of the protagonists, especially Andromache, falling into slavery. White American revolutionaries in the late 1770’s and early 1780’s similarly feared the fate of returning into “enslavement” by the British Crown. Yet, their cherished freedom rested, to a large extent, on the peculiar institution of chattel slavery. This exquisite pastoral scene, in which nature’s bounty blesses the first couple and by extension the new nation which they have helped to birth, is founded upon the nearly invisible labor in bondage of people of color. One even wonders if Fraunces wrote himself into the composition, in the role of a servitor to the first couple, in the personage of the nursemaid, whose own precise position and status was ambiguous.

This wax and shell work might thus be read, retrospectively, as an act of partial disavowal, obliquely alluding to the uncompensated labor of multitudes, signified by the anonymous nursemaid, while redirecting the viewer’s attention away from an enslaved workforce to the triumphant primary couple, heralding a new era of purported freedom. In that sense, the tableau might be read as containing in microcosm, the underlying contradictions of the new republic, which would ultimately determine the climatic conflict eight decades later over the meaning and destiny of the American experiment.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Julie Miller (Library of Congress) for insights into Samuel Fraunces, to Robert Paul (Emory) for calling my attention to the Frenh myth of Fraunus, and to Laurie Kain Hart (UCLA) for noting the likely symbolism of the tableau’s owl.

Endnotes

  1. On March 5, 1785, Governor Clinton of New York wrote to George Washington that he had arranged to ship the Samuel Fraunces’ tableau, referencing a “…Box…marked GW the latter contains a Glass Case with Wax or Grotto Work, presented by Mr Francis to Mrs Washington and by him left with Mrs Clinton to forward. I have put it up with all possible Care and earnestly hope it may arrive safe, tho’ I confess I would not be willing to Insure it as it appears to me to be a very Ginger Bread piece of work—If any of the parts should get loose they must be fastened with a little Rosen and white Wax—this is the makers direction which he desired might be communicated.”
  2. Mauss argues that all gifts contain a balance of interest and disinterest, tactics and altruism. Such certainly appears to be the case with Fraunces’ gift. It seems clear that Fraunces was a genuine admirer of Washington and there is every reason to think the gift was heartfelt. Having said that, Samuel Fraunces had strong motivations to cultivate George Washington’s favor. He had emerged from the Revolutionary War, in which he served the Revolutionary cause at considerable personal costs, with many debts. In several letters to Washington in the mid 1780’s, Fraunces references his financial straits and pleads for Washington’s assistance. Congress did eventually agree with Fraunces’ position and awarded him payments for his services rendered as an undercover intelligence agent during the war.
  3. Speculatively , might Fraunces’ decision in 1768 to present in the Vaux Hall Gardens a life size tableau of Publius Scipio, popularly known as “Scipio Africanus’, surrounded by captured Carthaginian generals, have been an effort to depict an African or black-themed scene in a socially acceptable fashion?

For Further Reading

Brooke Baerman. 2019. “NEW ORDER FROM YOUR HAND, NEW LUSTRE FROM YOUR EYE”:THE ART, CRAFT, AND SCIENCE OF PHILADELPHIA SHELLWORK GROTTO.. University of Delaware, Master’s Thesis. (Accessible online)

Samuel Fraunces, letter to George Washington, 4 December 1783 (New York Decr 4th 83)

Laura Keim. Shellwork Shadow-Box Grottoes from Colonial Philadelphia,” Piecework Magazine, March/April 2004, 42-46.

Caroline Winterer. From Royal to Republican: The Classical Image in Early America. The Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Mar., 2005), pp. 1264-1290.

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