Hester Middleton by Mary Roberts

Mary Roberts

Hester Middleton, c.1752–58, Watercolour on ivory, 3.8 x 2.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Purchase, Dale T. Johnson Fund and Jan and Warren Adelson Gift, 2007, 2007.64, www.metmuseum.org

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The Intimacy of Distance

Commentary by

This portrait miniature of Hester Middleton is one of five that artist Mary Roberts painted of a group of cousins—the children of brothers William and Henry Middleton—in the mid-eighteenth century. The brothers and their children were separated by transatlantic distance: William lived in Charleston, South Carolina, while Henry resided in Suffolk, England.

The commission of this set of portraits symbolizes the Middleton family’s affirmation of the strength and intimacy of their kinship across a vast ocean. By virtue of their diminutive size and delicate artistry, the portraits ask to be cradled in one’s palm, held close to the beholder’s eyes. Through the intensity of their gaze and the feelings of affection these objects inspired, the beholder and the beheld might momentarily transcend the barrier of distance.

The installation of the tabernacle in their midst can also be interpreted as the Israelites’ affirmation of intimacy through simultaneous closeness and distance. The materials offered for building and furnishing the tabernacle were the people’s most cherished possessions: gold jewellery, silver and bronze tableware, linens and animal skins, stones and gems, oils and spices. By offering their prized belongings for the communal construction of the tabernacle, the Israelites traded in their closeness to personal objects for closeness to God.

Likewise, the craftspeople who made the tabernacle’s furnishings spent a great deal of time forming visual and tactile bonds with the materials they handled. Imagine the fingers of the weavers and embroiderers as they worked the linen, coloured yarns, and goats’ hair into curtains and coverings; the jewellers and engravers knitting their brows in concentration as they cut and set the stones for the priestly garments; the arms of the carpenters and metalworkers swinging arcs in the air as they hammered wood, silver, bronze, and gold into pillars, posts, basins, and lamps.

Once the completed work was handed over to Moses, only he and the descendants of Levi—God’s chosen priests—could enter the tabernacle. Hereafter, the Israelites were confined to seeing their former possessions and the creations of their hands from the entrances of their tents and in altered form. And yet, this new physical distance heralded a new spiritual and relational intimacy with their God. With God residing in the sanctuary, the Israelites were assured that the divine spirit would accompany them at every stage of their wilderness journey.

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