I first saw a Mary Jessup portrait hanging on the walls of late East Hampton Town Historian, Sherrill Foster’s cottage. At first, I thought it was a Currier & Ives uncolored lithograph from the Civil War era. But it was a large charcoal and chalk drawing of a very idealized Victorian child, wearing a beret, inscribed “Isabella.” The drawing was clearly signed, Mary A. Jessup, but not dated. Sherrill had discovered that the artist was born in Sag Harbor, in 1826, and had probably studied at Clinton Academy in the early 1840’s, when the school added drawing and painting classes to its girl’s curriculum.
We have now recorded about a dozen of these beautiful large portrait drawings by Mary Jessup. The oldest is dated 1862, while the last recorded is from 1869.
As with many women artist’s, we have no art works from after Mary Jessup’s marriage to Dr. Charles Bolivar Dayton in 1871. Dayton was part of an old East Hampton family. After his return from being a Union Army surgeon, he practiced medicine in East Hampton Village. Mary was 45 years old when she married 46 year old Dr. Dayton. Married life tended to smother women’s artistic creativity under the blanket of a husband’s career and housekeeping. Dayton died in 1886 leaving their home and his office, to his wife. Their Georgian landmark home still stands today as the 1770 House Inn and Restaurant, on Main Street.
Widow Mary Dayton, lived until 1909, tending an old-fashioned garden and her increasing collection of stray cats. Legend has it that there were 137 cats, at the time of her death. Described as a small, wrinkled old lady with bright eyes, there is no mention of her artistic life in her obituary.
Luckily families have saved these heirloom portraits, so today we can celebrate Mary A. Jessup’s talent by enjoying the lasting beauty of her drawings. She saw loveliness in each one of her neighbor’s faces.