"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Monday, March 14, 2022

Margaret Taylor

This daguerreotype of  Margaret Taylor wife of Zachary Taylor was sold at auction in 2010. It is said to be the only surviving image of Margaret Taylor made during her lifetime, or perhaps one of two.

Mrs. Taylor famously did not take the role of mistress of the Whitehouse. She left that to her youngest daughter, Elizabeth.  As Appleton's Encyclopedia, 1889 puts it:
Mrs. Taylor was without social ambition, and when Gen. Taylor became president she reluctantly accepted her responsibilities, regarding the office as a “plot to deprive her of her husband’s society and to shorten his life by unnecessary care.” She surrendered to her youngest daughter the superintendence of the household, and took no part in social duties.

While there is some debate as to how reclusive Mrs. Taylor actually was and why. Thomas H. Appleton,  Jr. in Lewis Gould's 1996 book American First Ladies tries to dispel rumors that she  was too rural and ill mannered to take on the social responsibilities of the Whitehouse.

Many observers of the Washington scene who were accustomed to seeing the wife of the president in a more social role wondered why Margaret Taylor remained largely out of view. Rumors circulated that she was a coarse, common woman whose years on the frontier made her unfit to preside over polite society. Like Rachel Jackson, another wife of a military hero who became president, Margaret Taylor was depicted as smoking a corncob pipe. In truth, the slender woman of medium height and graying hair was "gentle" and "refined," according to Varina Davis. What is more, neither she nor her husband smoked, a grandson later recalled, because tobacco smoke made her "actively ill." Yet familiar images die hard; as recently as 1937 a story in the New York Times portrayed Mrs. Taylor leisurely puffing away at her pipe.

The Washington Post  in 1981 discussing unjust press criticism of first-ladies says, “Margaret Taylor, who smoked a corncob pipe, was called too coarse.”

Until the discovery of the photo above in 2010 no photo or contemporary image of Margaret Taylor was thought to exist. Thomas H. Appleton,  Jr.'s  bibliographical essay concludes: “There is no  authenticated portrait, sketch, or daguerreotype of Margaret Taylor.”

Maurine H. Beasley in her 2005 book First Ladies and the Press, says this:
Margaret Taylor, the wife of Zachery Taylor, kept to herself in the upper rooms of the White House. She refused to sit for her portrait or even a "photograph" (a daguerreotype, an early form of photography). After President Taylor died in 1850, an engraver who was eager to sell depictions of the deathbed scene but did not know what Margaret Taylor looked like concealed her face with a large handkerchief.

She's referring to this N. Currier print of the death of Zachary Taylor.

Michael at V-Sauce wonders if you're only truly dead when no images of you survive.

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