That Mount Vernon’s collection includes a portrait of General Cornwallis, the British General who eventually surrendered to Washington in 1781 following his defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, is somewhat surprising. That the miniature was painted in Calcutta, India, by a British woman artist, Diana Dietz Hill, makes it even more fascinating. The miniature was given to Mount Vernon in 2010 by the descendants of the family of Elizabeth Parke Custis Law (1776–1831), Martha Washington’s granddaughter. In 1795 Elizabeth Parke Custis married Thomas Law (1759–1834), who had served in India with the British East India Company from 1773 to 1791. It is likely that Thomas Law, who knew Cornwallis personally, acquired the miniature.
Oval, bust-length miniature portrait in polychrome watercolors of Charles, 1st Marquess Cornwallis. The portrait is lit from the proper left, and Lord Cornwallis is shown with his head and body turned slightly to the proper left as he gazes out to the viewer. Cornwallis wears a scarlet jacket with a white frilled chemise, stock and jabot. However, the face and hair are very finely drawn. Cornwallis is shown with blue-hazel eyes—their variegated color accomplished via a fine line of red around the iris—and imposingly arched eyebrows. His lips are demarcated by a line of black, which give his expression the hint of a smile. Very subtle shadowing suggests evening beard growth. His hair is powdered and worn ‘en-queue’, with curls over both ears, and a black ribbon is just visible over the proper right shoulder. The background is notable for its dynamic network of vertical and diagonal strokes. A sunset sky is suggested through cloud formations in shades of taupe and salmon, and faint sky blue at the upper edges. There is perhaps the suggestion of landscape that merges with sky against and above the subjects’ shoulders, particularly at proper left. The artist’s prominent signature and date of 1786 also appear above the proper left shoulder.
The miniature is framed in a simple casing of lacquered gold alloy over copper, with large amounts of silver. There is no decoration on the reverse.
Watercolor on ivory, lacquered copper alloy, glass
Overall: 4 1/8 in. × 3 1/4 in. × 3/16 in. (10.48 cm × 8.26 cm × 0.48 cm)
Gift of Katherine Merle-Smith Thomas, 2010
Mount Vernon's object research is ongoing and information about this object is subject to change. For information on image use and reproductions, click here