Beauty Blog: Part Two

Historic Arkansas Museum - Tuesday, April 21, 2020

By Carey Voss, Curator of Exhibits, and Victoria Chandler, Arkansas Made Researcher

Since it is necessary to physically distance ourselves from others, this is a perfect time to reflect on beauty as a great CONNECTOR. Contemplating beautiful things can provide an escape, but it can also ground and connect us – to each other, to nature and the environment, and to our most dearly held values. The naïve, folksy quality of this floral still life is charming on its own, but a bit of context helps us connect with Arkansans who lived over 150 years ago.

Still Life of Arkansas Flowers, Seleze LeFevre, Eagle Township (Pulaski County), watercolor on paper, 1856, 9 ½ x 9 ½ in., gift of Mr. Howard and Mrs. Elsie Stebbins, 95.31

Seleze LeFevre was from one of the oldest French families who settled in Arkansas. Originally from Canada, the Lefevre family left after the British took over, first settling in Vincennes, Indiana, before landing at Arkansas Post around 1788 or 1789. There, Peter Lefevre, the patriarch of the family, built one of the largest houses and a sawmill, but declared bankruptcy in 1810. He was known as a quick-witted man who spoke English, Spanish, and Indian dialect in addition to his native French. He served as an interpreter and assisted with business affairs between Arkansas settlers and Native Americans. British naturalist Thomas Nuttall visited Lefevre and his family at Arkansas Post and noted “Monsieur F. by his dress and manners did not appear to have had much acquaintance with the civilized world.” Though Peter Lefevre appeared “wild” to Nuttall, the family embodied the spirit of most French habitants - resourceful, self-reliant, proud Frenchmen who also sought wealth and status. Sometime after1819 Lefevre moved his family to “higher ground” along the Arkansas River about 8 miles south of present-day Little Rock. The Lefevres were a tight-knit family, and all seemed to possess the independent spirit of their forefather Peter. Seleze was just 16 years old when she presented this painting to her uncle Leon. Even though Peter and Seleze’s father Ambrose both died before this floral scene was painted, it’s hard to separate the Lefevre family histories and personalities from this beguiling watercolor. Seleze appears to have painted a tulip, pink daisy, several varieties of dianthus, rosebuds, and a peony. It is romantic to think of Seleze painting this watercolor in one of the Lefevre family’s houses, which were probably filled with a random assortment of furniture and adornments collected in 18th century French Canada, Indiana, Arkansas Post, and early Little Rock. This mishmash of décor would have included trappings and trinkets from Peter and Leon’s days as an Indian traders. Did Seleze pick this bouquet from the family gardens and place it inside her home amongst this eclectic interior? We like to think so.

Harriet Eliza Ashley and Enslaved Nursemaid, unknown photographer, Little Rock (Pulaski County), ferrotype, circa 1860, 3 ¾ × 3 ¼ in., courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Cockrill, on loan to Historic Arkansas Museum

US Senator Chester Ashley (1791-1848) was one of the first lawyers to settle in “the little rock” in 1820, and his land holdings eventually made him the richest man in Arkansas. This remarkable photograph features Chester Ashley’s granddaughter, Harriet, and an unknown enslaved nursemaid. According to the 1860 census, little Harriet lived with her grandmother, father, and extended family, as well as 22 enslaved individuals, on the Ashley family estate near what is now the southeast corner of Scott and Markham. Ostensibly a portrait of Harriet, who would have been 3 or 4 years old at the time, the photograph also serves as rare documentation of the life of an enslaved nursemaid. In addition, it contains clues about the complex relationship between enslaved individuals and the white families who depended on their forced service and labor. “Nurse and child” daguerreotypes and ferrotypes were common because relatively long exposure times (15-30 seconds) required an adult to hold the child as still as possible. But there is a more disquieting reason for including the child’s enslaved nurse in this photo: depiction of a well-dressed slave signaled a family’s wealth and status and served as a record of a prized possession.

Indicating her importance as the primary subject of the photograph, Harriet Ashley is held in front of her caregiver. She wears a delicate white off-the-shoulder dress with cut-work lace trim, hair fashionably parted in the center. Perhaps because Harriet’s skin tone is so close to her white dress, she appears somewhat ghostly next to the rich darkness of her nursemaid’s skin and eyes. Harriet’s caregiver is also impeccably dressed in a drop-shouldered day dress made of paisley patterned calico, hair parted in the center, and hoop earrings. Her direct gaze is arresting. Even though she is required to serve the Ashley family, her eye contact is strong and self-assured. This woman’s ability to simultaneously “belong” to her master while maintaining her own sense of agency and self is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Connect: Share an example of how experiencing beauty has helped you connect with another person, nature, your higher power, or your core values and beliefs.