According to the Publications of the Rhode Island Historical Society, vol. 3, Catalogue of Portraits, 1895, p.102: “The painting referred to in the publication as An Indian Girl, is a portrait of one of the last of the Nantucket tribe, not full blood. It was painted about 1850 by Mrs. Dassell, the wife of a German Physician of Nantucket, in whose family she was a servant. The painting was obtained by the late Miss Julia Bullock in a raffle for a charitable object, and it was given by Miss Bullock to this society on March 26, 1883″. But who is the little girl in the painting?
The painting was done by Hermine Borchard Dassel, although in other sources her name can be found as Herminia, Herminie or Hermoine. She was born in 1821, Konigsberg, Prussia, the daughter of a wealthy banker. When the family suffered heavy financial losses in 1839, she resolves upon a career as an artist in order to provide an income. Borchard worked in Konigsberg as an amateur before going to Dusseldorf to study under the painter Carl Sohn. She supports herself by painting scenes of rural daily life. She further on spends some time working in Italy, but after the 1848 revolution, she decides to travel by sea to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1849, where she marries a man named Wilhelm Dassel, whose name she uses thereafter. She develops a professional career and her work was exhibited at the American Art Union in New York, and in 1850 she becomes an honorary member of the National Academy. According to The Crayon vol.5 by Silman and Durand, Dassel was most successful with oil portraits of children and pastel portraits. The works she is most famous for are two portraits, one entitled, Abram Quary, the Last Indian on Nantucket Island (1851), and the other is her portrait of the celebrated female astronomer, Maria Mitchell (1851). But she actually painted two portraits of Quary. Hermine Dassel had three children Bernhard, Angelea, and Herman. Throughout our research, we could not find any evidence that Wilhelm Dassel was a physician, in the 1853 census he is listed as a teacher and she is listed as an artist. Hermine Dassel died suddenly on December 7th, 1857.
Frances Ruley Karttunen writes in an article for Yesterdayisland.com that Dassel traveled to Nantucket in 1851 in order to paint Maria Mitchell, from there Dassel, takes an interest in the Nantucket natives and thus convinces Abram Quary, who is thought at the time to be the last Nantucket Indian, to let her paint his portrait. Dassel takes up a room at the Atheneum where Mitchell is still working as a librarian. It is during this same time that she paints the Nantucket Indian Princess. Karttunen continues to write that Abram Quary and Dorcas Honorable were in fact not the last two Indians in Nantucket, but instead most likely the last two full blooded Indians on the island. Dorcas Honorable often gets confused with Dorcas Mingo, another Nantucket Indian woman, who had a granddaughter named Isabella Draper, who was born around 1841. Karttunen suggests that the little girl in the painting is an eleven-year-old Isabella Draper, who Dassel because of her interest in Nantucket Indians could have probably met during this time. In an excerpt from a letter that Mitchell wrote to her sister Sally in 1851 talking about Dassel, Mitchell makes mention of an Isabel, “She has taken a room at the Atheneum and put up about a dozen pictures – very beautiful – Isabel is lovely. She has not tried to make a portrait, but a very pretty picture . . . .” It is my belief that this Isabel is probably Isabella Draper. Although we have not found any evidence in our research to support that Isabella was a servant to Dassel, it is very likely that they could have met. Isabella Draper goes on to marry Civil War Veteran Hiram Reed, the two have no children and Isabella dies in 1882, a year before the painting is donated to us.
~ Debby de Afonseca, Collections and Research Intern
“A Bit of History WebSite.” Descendants of William the Conqueror. Accessed August 01, 2018. http://abitofhistory.net/html/rhw/d.htm.
“Nantucket’s Last Indian? | Yesterdays Island, Todays Nantucket.” Yesterday’s Island, Todays Nantucket. May 23, 2013. Accessed August 01, 2018. http://yesterdaysisland.com/nantuckets-last-indian/.
“Tag Archives: Herminia B. Dassel.” Maria Mitchell Association. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.mariamitchell.org/tag/herminia-b-dassel.
Douglas-Lithgow, R. A. Nantucket: A History. New York: Putnam, Knickerbocker Press, 1914.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Abrams Eyes: The Native American Legacy of Nantucket Island. Nantucket, MA: Mill Hill Press, 1998.
Simmons, William S. “The Earliest Prints and Paintings of New England Indians.” Rhode Island History, Volume 41, Number 3, August 1982.