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Hannah Adams, by Chester Harding, 1827

Hannah Adams, by Chester Harding, 1827, Oil on canvas, 92 x 70.8 cm.

Chester Harding. Conway, Massachusetts 1792-1886 Boston, Massachusetts. Hannah Adams [1827], Oil on canvas, 92 x 70.8 cm. Gift of several ladies, 1833.


Although Hannah Adams (1755-1831) is a fairly obscure figure in the history of American letters, she received support, financial and otherwise, from some of Boston’s leading citizens. Among these was William Smith Shaw, first Librarian of the Boston Athenæum, who championed Adams’s request for access to the Library at a time when women were not expected to have any need or interest in such a place. Adams’s professionalism, persistence, and integrity made her eligible for a place of honor within the Athenæum’s history and within its collection of portraits.

Hannah Adams was born in Medfield, Massachusetts, into a family whose poverty conspired with Hannah’s own frail health to make it impossible for the girl to have much formal education.[1] Luckily her father, who had an innate love of learning and, for a time, was a bookseller in Medfield, encouraged his daughter to pursue knowledge in whatever way she could.[2] She was coached by students who boarded in her family home and, with permission, used whatever small private libraries were available in the area. Her diligence produced rewards. In about 1780 she began to write a concise guide to religion, which was published four years later as An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day. The success of this book, and of an abridged edition published in 1791 under the title A View of Religion, made Adams locally famous, if not rich. Over the next several decades she published a history of New England (1805), a history of the Jews (1812), and an essay on the Gospels (1826).

While researching her book on Jewish history, Adams was given assistance by her distant cousin John Adams, former president of the United States, and the Rev. Joseph Stevens Buckminster, a founding member of the Boston Athenæum. Both men allowed the author to use their private libraries and, according to one of Hannah Adams’s eulogizers, the former president “was struck with the rapacity with which she [Hannah] went through folios of the venerable Fathers.”[3] Several other well-placed citizens of Boston, including Josiah Quincy and Stephen Higginson, were so impressed by Adams’s intelligence and demeanor that they agreed to give her an annual stipend that allowed her to continue her work.[4]

Hannah Adams’s almost legendary connection to the Boston Athenæum was made when William Smith Shaw convinced the Trustees 1829 to give her access to the collections of the all-male institution. “My friend William Shaw, Esq., gave me the liberty of frequenting the Atheneum [sic],” she later recalled. “Amidst that large and valuable collection of books, I found an inexhaustible source of information and entertainment; and among other advantages, I found a few literary friends, in whose conversation I enjoyed ‘the feast of reason and the flow of soul’”.[5] Adams’s friend and fellow writer Hannah Lee remembered that Adams “spent days” at the Athenæum and that Shaw, “after some ineffectual attempts to disengage her from her book, would lock the door, go home to his dinner, and return again, and find her in the same spot, and unconscious either of his absence, or that the dinner hour was past.” [6]

Given the unique status that Adams was given by the Athenæum, the gift from “several ladies” of her portrait to the Library was perfectly appropriate and, indeed, helped to fill a niche in the institution’s unofficial “hall of fame.” The painting was executed in 1827 by Chester Harding who, with Gilbert Stuart’s death in 1828, was about to become the city’s leading portrait painter.[7] After working at various jobs in New England and as a sign painter in Pittsburgh, Harding moved to Kentucky, where he painted a portrait of Daniel Boone in 1820. It was reproduced a number of times and made Harding’s name as an artist. Two years later Harding settled in Boston, where he gave Stuart a run for his money, stirring up enough patronage to lead the older master to call it “Harding fever.” Harding made an extended European trip in 1823-1826, traveling mostly in England and Scotland. Otherwise, he spent most of his adult life in Massachusetts, first in Boston and from 1830 in Springfield. (Also see entry 66.)

Harding painted Hannah Adams very soon after returning from his years in Great Britain. While his experiences there cannot be cataloged here, suffice it to say that he made enough of an impression that, when he was about to return to America, no less a figure than James Sheridan Knowles wrote a poem about him.[8]

Except for Hannah Adams’s unusual place in contemporary Boston literary history, it is unclear why Harding painted her when he did. One source several decades later implied that the painting was made on commission as an “honorary portrait, executed by Mr. Harding at the expense of the ladies of Boston.”[9] But since the portrait was not given to the Athenæum until at least six years after it was painted, that seems unlikely. Harding’s original intention in painting Adams’s portrait may have been to have engravings made. Indeed, within a year of its execution, Francis Alexander copied the painting and then drew it onto stone for reproduction by Pendleton’s lithography firm. The lithograph was immediately used to illustrate an article about Adams in Sarah Josepha Hale’s new literary periodical The Ladies’ Magazine.[10]

Whatever the case, it is clear that Harding began the painting soon after his return to Boston from Great Britain. It was certainly finished by April 1827, when a writer for the Boston Lyceum saw it in Harding’s studio. That writer called the painting “vividly accurate” and “somewhat historical” and noted the inclusion of a book, “which we take to be an ‘abridgment of New England,’” referring to one of Hannah Adams’s publications.[11] That same year, the painting was exhibited at the Athenæum, with no owner listed in the catalog, implying that Harding himself retained possession of it.[12] It was shortly after this, in March 1829, that Hannah Adams applied to the Athenæum’s Trustees for “permission to have the use of the Library” and was then authorized to take books out of the Library “as if she were a proprietor.”[13] Her success in this regard was probably the eventual impetus, in about 1832, for “several ladies” to raise a subscription to purchase the painting from Harding and give it to the Athenæum in 1833.[14]


David B. Dearinger from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 217-220. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]The basic source for Hannah Adams’s life is her autobiography A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams, Written by Herself  (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1832), with an addendum by Harriet (Sawyer) Lee (see cat. no. 78).
[2]His daughter later remembered that his “taste for learning continued unabated till his death, which took place at the advanced age of eighty-eight years” (Adams, 2).
[3]Lee, in Adams, 74.
[4]Adams, passim.
[5]Adams, 38.
[6]Lee, in Adams, 74-75. When told this story, Adams supposedly replied, “It is very much exaggerated. I don’t think it ever happened more than once or twice.”
[7]The standard work on Harding is Leah Lipton’s exhibition catalogue, A Truthful Likeness: Chester Harding and His Portraits (Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1985). Harding published his autobiography under the title My Egotistigraphy (Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, 1866). The book was edited and reissued by his daughter Margaret E. White as A Sketch of Chester Harding, Artist: Drawn by His Own Hand (Boston and New York, 1929; reprinted New York: Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press, 1970).
[8]Harding, Sketch, 130.
[9]Albany Gallery of the Fine Arts, Catalogue of the Fourth Exhibition (1849), 13.
[10]G. P., “Mrs. Hannah Adams,” Ladies’ Magazine 1 (January 1828): frontispiece. The lithograph was also used as the frontispiece in Adams’s 1832 autobiography.
[11] “Table Talk. Gallery of Portraits,” Boston Lyceum 1 (April 1827): 218.
[12]Boston Athenæum, A Catalogue of the First Exhibition of Paintings, in the Athenæum Gallery (1827), no. 54. Nor was the painting listed as being for sale.
[13]Quincy, 123.
[14]Swan, 123.