Among the treasures in the Madison Historical Society’s collection is an exquisite miniature portrait, painted on a sliver of ivory and mounted in an ornate frame. Only about five inches tall, it was created 176 years ago when the sitter, Catherine S. Scranton, was around twenty years old.
Striking in its simple charm, the portrait captures the radiance of the young Catherine and reflects the impeccable skill of the artist. In every way, the finely detailed watercolor is captivating--and in every sense priceless to the history of Madison.
A handwritten note on the back of the old frame reveals the name of the artist as “Mrs. Caroline Washburn of New York.” Caroline was, however, a Madison native--and a cherished member of one of our town’s most accomplished artistic families.
Born in 1808 in the East River District, where she spent most of her life, Caroline was the youngest child of George Munger (1781-1825), a respected portrait painter and engraver. Her sister, Clarissa Munger Badger (1806-1889) was well known both locally and farther afield as a botanical painter, and she achieved national renown with the publication of a small number of beautiful books that featured her color plates of wildflowers with accompanying poems. Their brother, George N. Munger (1803 -1882), was an inventor, instrument maker, and talented artist as well. The Munger siblings seem to have enjoyed a close relationship: Clarissa had some of her work displayed in her sister’s pet project, the East River Reading Room, and George named his daughter after Caroline.
As a young adult, before her marriage at the age of twenty-three, Caroline was a teacher at the Hartford Seminary. Catherine E. Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s older sister, reported in her book, Educational Reminiscences and Suggestions, that “Miss Caroline Munger was one of my teachers, who had a remarkably charming voice and…became the finest and most agreeable reader I ever heard. She was also enthusiastic … and her success was remarkable.”
Caroline married Horace B. Washburn (1801-1881) in 1831. Our miniature is dated 1841, which is also the year her work was exhibited, as “Mrs. H. B. Washburn,” at the National Academy in New York City. Could our treasure have been part of that exhibition?
Founding of the East River Reading Room
In the early years of their marriage, the Washburns spent some time in Hartford and New York and summered in Madison, but later they lived year-round on a Madison estate they named Wildwood. In addition to her accomplished work as a painter of miniature portraits on ivory, Caroline clearly kept up her passion for reading as well as her love for her husband, Horace. In 1874, forty-three years after they were married, they co-founded the East River Reading Room (see my SLT article, 12/9/16). Their objective was to promote "the mental and moral improvement of its members by means of books, papers, magazines and periodicals with exhibitions, readings, recitations, music and lectures, etc.” Caroline died in 1892, but her charming reading room and her enchanting works on ivory still survive.
Earlier this month, by a majority of more than 3:1, Madison voters approved a referendum to renovate the Scranton Memorial Library. Proceeds from the pending sale of the East River Reading Room will be donated by its Board of Trustees to help with the renovation. So Caroline and Horace’s mission to nurture inquisitive minds still resonates nearly a century and a half later, inspiring Madison citizens’ determination to keep education in the forefront of our local culture.
Caroline’s miniature and other portraits are displayed in the Madison Historical Society’s Flickr Album at https://flic.kr/s/aHskvjoPKR.
Originally appeared on February 21, 2017, in a special to the Shoreline Times. Written by Bob Gundersen.