Collection close-up: First lady Killen Stout

By Elizabeth Coulter, curator of collections for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs 

The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs currently has around 100,000 objects in the Historic Collection including a large holding of painted portraits of Delaware figures. Among them are portraits of Delaware’s first ladies including this portrait of Angelica Killen Stout from circa 1820–1830. Though the artist of the painting is unknown, they were thoughtful in Stout’s depiction incorporating several visual codes that indicated her role and social status to contemporary viewers.

Portrait of Angelica Killen Stout
Image: Unknown artist, “Angelica Killen Stout,” oil on canvas, circa 1820–1830, 1976.205, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

Delaware native Angelica Killen Stout (1755–1827), grew up on The Green in Dover, Delaware. She married Jacob Stout (1764–1855), one of the founders of Leipsic, Delaware, around 1784 and they had five children. Jacob Stout was the president of the Delaware Senate, and when Governor-elect Henry Molleston passed away, he assumed the role of governor. Governor Stout held office for only one year from 1820 to 1821. The Stouts lived in Woodburn, since 1965 the official residence of the governor of Delaware, around the time of their term. At that time, the residence was owned by Martin Bates who was a part of the Hillyard family line of ownership. Angelica Stout’s sister, Mary Killen (1758–1805), married into the Hillyard family which likely led to their connection at the property. While the Stouts lived in Woodburn, they also operated a tannery near there often referred to as “Cowgill Tannery” or “Sipple Tannery.”

This portrait of Angelica Stout was painted around the time that she became first lady, and perhaps posthumously. She is rendered in a classical portrait style for the period. Here, in the foreground of the painting, she sits in a fashionable balloon-back chair in front of a medium brown background. The dark wooden framed chair, likely made of mahogany, features delicate, Neoclassical designed, carved details at the top, and red upholstery on the chair back. This style chair was typical of fashionable parlor seating during the period. This chair made of fine materials not only was in style by design, but also functioned to accommodate the clothing fashion and social customs of the era. The parlor was considered a more public space in the home where people hosted their guests. The chair has an upright back to reflect the expected posture of its sitter in a social setting, and that is shown here, in her upright position. The chair also does not have arms, so it allows for space for a full skirt gown.

Here, Angelica Stout wears a dark blue, off the shoulder, dress with short sleeves featuring a black lace ruffle border, a V-shaped fitted bodice and full skirt. Women during the 1820s and 1830s wore dresses that accentuated the female form, and a tight bodice contrasted with a full, bell-shaped skirt was the desired silhouette. This type of dress usually was worn with boned corsets to accentuate the waist, and several layers of petticoats to support the full skirt. This silhouette was utilized in daytime wear with long sleeves and evening wear with short sleeves, which makes this dress an evening dress. Additionally, based on the reflective quality of the dress, it was likely made with an expensive silk and adorned with stylish, fine lace. Of note, details in this dress are more indicative of fashion in the 1830s, like the trim sleeves, V-shaped bodice and deep off the shoulder neckline.

Her deep neckline is emphasized by her hair swept back away from her face with trendy ringlet curls falling at shoulder length. This style also draws interest to her jewelry. She wears gold hooped earrings and a gold bracelet with precious stone accents. 1820s jewelry prominently featured gold, whether it was used in mesh, chains or as a compliment to gemstones, like the jewelry in this portrait. She also has gloves which were worn regularly in public settings, and were made from fine materials, like the gloves pictured here. They might also allude to the family tannery business. Overall, her styling in this portrait indicates her social standing because she could afford and gain access to fine, fashionable attire. She also had access to the appropriate social occasions, as well as a fashionable home that held such events, in which to wear this attire.

In addition to where she is seated and how she is fashioned, her gesture and pose are also coded. The glove on her right hand has been removed and signifies a custom of the period. This portrait not only draws attention to her delicate hands to suggest a life of leisure and superiority, but also speaks to her roles. Gloves were mainly removed in private or intimate settings, and here she is shown in transition from her public and private persona. Thus, this visual code indicates her role as a public figure and her role as a woman in the home.

Furthermore, in this three-quarter position, her torso can be interpreted as turned towards or turned away from the viewer. Her torso is upright, but her shoulders are relaxed, and her right arm gently rests on a surface covered with lush, gathered yellow and red fabric. The position of her left arm in front of her body creates a divide between the viewer and herself, while her gaze engages directly with the viewer. These gestures simultaneously make her accessible and reserved. Depending on the viewer, whether they were of equal, higher or lower social status, her ambiguous pose and gaze leads to multiple interpretations while maintaining her place as a woman in society.

This portrait is currently on view in the entry hall of Woodburn among other portraits of Delaware first ladies.

As the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs’ Curator of Collections, Elizabeth Coulter participates in developing and installing exhibitions, developing and presenting educational programs, providing access to the collections, collaborating with partnering organizations and expanding the profile and use of the collections. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and American studies from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in decorative arts history from George Mason University and the Smithsonian Associates.

Photo of Elizabeth Coulter
Elizabeth Coulter (she/her)

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