Attributed to John Hesselius (1728-1778)

portrait of slator (slater) clay (1754-1821) of new castle, de and phi

ladelphia, pa, 1759

Pencil inscription to verso of re-lined canvas, likely transcribed from original, "Slater Clay 1759 age five years J.H.," oil on canvas, framed.

29 1/4 in. x 24 3/8 in. (sight)


Descended in the family of the sitter to the present owner.
A letter, written by William John Potts and dated July 10, 1879, notes that "a portrait in oil, about three quarter length of the Rev Slator Clay is in the possession of Mrs. Harriet (Clay) Leaf wife of the Rev Edmund Leaf Rector of the Church at Birdsboro PA. Mrs. Leaf is the dau. of Chas. Clay and grand daughter of the Rev. Slator Clay. The portrait is not of much merit as a work of art. It was taken at the age of five years in 1759? The young gentleman is represented with a cardinal bird in his hand a favorite style of the day. As this may be the work of an early American painter (...Hesselius?) it is of interest."
Estimate $20,000-30,000

A probable fourth to add to a series of three known paintings by John Hesselius depicting members of the notable and distinguished Clay Family of New Castle, Delaware, as discussed in Fleischer, Roland E. "Three Recently Discovered Portraits by John Hesselius," The Magazine Antiques, March 1981, pp. 666-668. The existence of this portrait seems to confirm Fleischer's suspicions that Hesselius painted the Clay's other children concomitant to his painting of Slater Clay (1711-1767), Ann Clay (1723-1789) with Mary Clay (1758-1801), and Thomas Clay (1753-1793) in 1759.

From the use of rich color and careful depiction of fabric to the sitter's elegant pose and pleasant disposition, the present portrait bears much stylistic resemblance to Hesselius's portrait of Thomas Clay, discussed by Fleischer and currently in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, accession number 2009-16-9 (see illustration above). These artistic choices bespeak a maturation in Hesselius's style that is often attributed to the influence of John Wollaston (1710-1775), an English painter who was active in the Colonies from 1749 to 1767 and who helped introduce the more decorative traditions of the English Rococo into Colonial portraiture.

Fleischer notes that with his first known painting dating from 1749, John revealed that "he had largely abandoned the sober, naturalistic style of his father [Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755)] in favor of the brighter, more decorative style of Robert Feke [c.1705-c.1752];" however, it is in the portraits of the Clay family that Fleischer believes we can distinctly detect Hesselius's shift away from Feke towards Wollaston, with the portrait of Thomas Clay, and arguably now, also the portrait of his brother Slator Clay, being the most "stylistically advanced." The composition of the present painting may have been inspired directly by Wollaston's double portrait of Mann Page and his sister Elizabeth, 1757, in which the young Master Page is depicted holding a tethered red cardinal in his outstretched arm.

The fifth child of Slater Clay (1711-1767) and Ann Curtis Clay (1723-1789), Slator (Slater) Clay was born on October 1, 1754 in New Castle, Delaware. He married Hannah Holstein (1748-1832) on December 3, 1786 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Though a trained lawyer, Clay later shifted his focus to religion and was ordained a deacon in Christ Church, Philadelphia by Bishop White on December 23, 1787. According to an account by one of his sons, Rev. Jehu C. Clay (see: Hotchkin, Rev. S.F. Early Clergy of Pennsylvania and Delaware, (1890), pp. 91-93), Rev. Slator Clay was, "five feet and eight inches high, and his body was slender and delicate, his eyes were of a hazel color, and his countenance was 'benign and interesting.' He was affable to friends. His Christian character made him humble, gentle and childlike." Slator and Harriet had four children: Ann, George, Jehu Curtis, and Charles Holstein, the last of whom was appointed the executor of Slator's will and estate.

Sold for $55,000 (buyer's premium included)