A lovely miniature is ever a choice treasure, and particularly so when from the hand of that great master, Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807). The appearance of an unrecorded pair of Malbone miniatures is bound to create interest among admirers of his work.
Until early 20thC, the existence of the miniatures was known to only a few, but such outstanding examples of Malbone's artistry could not long remain obscure. They came to light in the world of art in 1933, when photographs were furnished to the late Ruel P. Tolman, then acting director of the National Gallery of Art, for reproduction in the work about Malbone upon which he was engaged and which was later published early in 1955 by the New-York Historical Society.
About all then known was that the miniatures were likenesses of Robert Macomb and his fiancée, Mary Cornell Pell. An enthralling search followed in an endeavor to fix the time and place of the painting of the miniatures; and a bundle of old Macomb letters snatched from a bonfire many years ago made it possible to piece together the following story.
The miniature establishes that Robert Macomb was a personable young man. However, his suit in 1806 for the hand of a wealthy young orphan, Mary Cornell Pell, was not looked upon with favor by her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Pearsall, with whom the young lady resided in New York. The Pearsalls feared that the handsome young man might waste their ward's inheritance, and this unfortunate state of affairs occasioned a clandestine courtship between Robert and Mary. Love letters surreptitiously exchanged survived that bonfire.
Shortly after the young couple became secretly engaged early in May 1806, Robert wrote his betrothed in an undated letter: "Mary, will you grant me one favor which under our present circumstances I may ask with the greatest propriety? Will you go with me to the Limner's and sit for your miniature. The thing shall be managed with secrecy. Do not refuse me this. Consider how much I am absent from you, and what a consolation your semblance ever would afford me in my solitude. Do, I beseech you, allow me this favor." Robert's earnest entreaty was heeded. Letters saved from the flames prove fairly conclusively that these miniatures were painted by Malbone in New York during May 1806. Malbone's account book records that fifty dollars was paid for each miniature.
Not only did Mary visit the "Limner" - she took up painting under his supervision. On October 5, 1806, Malbone wrote Robert Macomb from Boston: "I received a letter from you last July in which you requested me to
send a little picture which Miss P. had begun to paint at my room. The next day I was taken sick and consequently not able to attend to it. I was confined to the house nearly two months – I would have given it the finishing touch as you requested but have not been well enough to use my pencil yet. I shall now forward it by Mr. DeLasert and hope you will make my apology to Miss P. for not sending it sooner." Malbone's visit to New York in the spring of 1806 proved to be his last. He died at Savannah, Georgia, on May 7, 1807, at the untimely age of twenty-nine.
What else do we know about the subjects of these lovely miniatures? Mary Cornell Pell was the daughter of Elijah Pell, a prominent merchant of New York, and his wife, Mary Cornell. She was born at East Chester, New York, on August 12, 1785. Following the death of her parents in her early youth, she made her home with her father's business partner, Thomas Pearsall, and his
wife, Phebe Cornell - a sister of Mary's mother. Their New York home was at 53 Broadway. Mary Pell and Robert Macomb were married in old Trinity Church on lower Broadway on November 3, 1806, by the Right Reverend Benjamin Moore, Bishop of New York.
Born at Detroit on December 28,1783, Robert Macomb was the son of Alexander Macomb and his wife, Catherine Navarre. Robert's older brother Alexander became General Macomb, the hero of the Battle of Plattsburg in the War of 1812. The Macombs moved to New York about 1785. Their house at 39 Broadway became the residence of President Washington in 1790, before the seat of the federal government was moved from New York to Philadelphia. Robert graduated from Columbia College in 1802, receiving a Master of Arts degree three years later. A lawyer by profession, he served as clerk of the Court of General Sessions at New York from 1811 to 1813 and from 1815 to 1817. During the War of 1812 he was an aide of Governor Daniel D. Tompkins of New York, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Today his name is principally associated with Macomb's Dam, a structure he caused to be built in 1815 across the Harlem River (near what is now 145th Street) in an endeavor to maintain a continuous flow of tidewater for the operation of his grist mill across Spuyten Duyvil Creek. He died on February 4, 1832, at the house built about 1797 by his father as a country home in King's Bridge. Mrs. Macomb continued to live there until a few years before her death in New York on September 2, 1854.