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On Exhibit: 'The Schuyler Sisters & Their Circle'

On Exhibit: 'The Schuyler Sisters & Their Circle'

Collection spotlights connections between 18th-century siblings and Hamilton
On Exhibit: 'The Schuyler Sisters & Their Circle'
"The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle" at the Albany Insitute of History and Art.
Photographer: Indiana Nash/gazette reporter

If the objects at the Albany Institute of History and Art could talk, we’d know a lot more about the lives of the Schuyler sisters than we see in “Hamilton.”

More than 100 objects from the lives and times of Elizabeth (Eliza), Angelica, Peggy and their family members are included in the latest exhibit to open at the museum, which offers a sprawling and detailed look at the Capital Region’s connections with Hamilton (both the historical figure and the musical).

In “The Schuyler Sisters & Their Circle,” period dresses, petticoats, family furniture, Hamilton’s writing desk, portraits, books, fans, letters and more all come together to weave the story of the siblings. 

Perhaps the most stunning pieces in the collection are so small one might miss them. The first is Eliza’s Hamilton’s wedding ring. 

“This is the Holy Grail of the exhibition,” said curator Diane Shewchuk during a recent tour. 

The gimmel rings (two rings that fit together to form one) are separated in the case, one with “Alexander” inscribed on it and the other “Elizabeth.” Hamilton placed the ring on Elizabeth’s finger during their ceremony in 1780, in the parlor of the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. 

On loan from Columbia University in New York City, the ring will be part of the exhibit only until Oct. 27. 

“Think about how long she wore this. She outlived [Alexander] by 50 years,” Shewchuk said. 

The Schuyler sisters, who were born in Albany, were celebrities of their era, as they are again today thanks to the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” which will be making a stop at Proctors from Aug. 13-25. 

They were connected to the other Founding Fathers as well, as seen in letters and objects included in the exhibit, and were influential in making introductions — what today might be considered networking. 

As the exhibition points out, while Angelica lived abroad in Paris and London for more than a decade, she got to know people like Benjamin Franklin and Marquis de Lafayette. She married John Baker Church, a businessman who served in the British House of Commons.  

“She knew these scientists, she knew playwrights, she knew artists. She was in the sect of everybody who could be anybody in London at the time,” Shewchuk said. 

Angelica often sent letters of introduction to Hamilton when people she respected were coming to the United States. One included in the exhibition is for Joseph Priestly, a scientist who studied everything from chemistry to electricity to politics. Priestly came to spend the rest of his life in the States after traveling there with Angelica’s letter. 

“One of my favorite things in the exhibition is this teeny portrait of Thomas Jefferson,” Shewchuk said. Painted by John Trumbull and owned by Angelica, it speaks to yet another connection. 

“So when she sings in the musical ‘When I meet Thomas Jefferson,’ she really did know him. She knew him very well,” Shewchuk said. 

The piece was borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s just one of many from private collections, colleges and museums, including the Fort Ticonderoga museum and the Fenimore Art Museum. Another major collaborator and lender was the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, which is not far from the Institute. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of pieces from the Institute’s own collection. One of the most surprising is a yellow quilted petticoat, exhibited in a glass case. When Shewchuk was planning the exhibit she pulled the piece out just as an example of other period garments. 

Then she spotted the note that came with it when it was donated in 1948.

“The file has a little note saying that this was worn at the Hamilton wedding. I did some research and it is possible,” Shewchuk said. The guest list for the wedding wasn’t overly long, and the Institute speculates the petticoat could have been worn by Eliza’s aunt Rachel. 

The exhibit also features letters from the Institute’s collection, including one about the state of New York City during the days following Hamilton’s death. Written from Dirck Ten Broeck to his father, Abraham, the letter speaks about Aaron Burr: “In truth, I have no hesitation to say [if] he did presume to show himself in the streets, he would be torn to pieces by the Citizens, so great is the general abhorrence of this affair.”

Nearby is an example of dueling pistols, though not the ones Burr and Hamilton used, as well as a lock of Hamilton’s hair, cut by his wife and loaned by the Fenimore Art Museum.

“It came to the Fenimore Art Museum with the story that it was cut on the day he died. So that would be 250 years ago this month,” Shewchuk said, adding, “It’s a remarkable thing to think that there’s a wisp of his hair right there.”

Not far away is a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was printed in a New York newspaper on July 11, 1776, just days after the original document was signed. It’s one of five known copies of the print. 

It came with the note, “The Declaration of the United States of America, is inserted in this paper, in the present form, to oblige a number of our Customers, who intend to separate it from the rest of the paper, and fix it up, in open view, in their Houses, as a mark of their approbation of the INDEPENDENT SPIRIT of their Representatives.” 

It’s both a perfect note to end on and a perfect note to begin with, and it hangs close to other newspapers from the time as well as Hamilton’s writing and field desk, borrowed from Fort Ticonderoga. 

Of course, the exhibit wouldn’t be complete without portraits of the actual Schuyler sisters. 

“Securing the portraits was key,” Schewchuck said. It also proved challenging. 

“The thing about this family is they didn’t know that they were going to become famous because of a musical. So they didn’t think to say, ‘I should have my portrait painted and leave it to some museum,’ ” Shewchuk said. 

Through some extensive research, she was able to secure a portrait of Angelica from a private collection, and it seems to be the only known portrait of her. Finding Peggy (or Margaret) proved to be impossible and the exhibition includes a drawing of her instead, as well as a portrait of Eliza (from the Museum of the City of New York) and one of Hamilton, borrowed from Union College. 

While many of the Schuyler sisters’ connections are centered on Albany, there’s also a key Schenectady connection. Philip Schuyler is one of Union College’s founders, and his portrait is featured in the exhibition as well, on loan from the college. 

Due to the sheer number of objects and the intricate web of local connections, this is a show for which viewers will need to carve out some time. Or go a few times throughout the year.  

“Things will be cycling in and out of the show,” Shewchuk said. 

While Eliza’s wedding rings will be leaving in October, a tea caddy (which Angelica discusses in a letter) will be added. 
All the more reason for Hamilton history fans and Broadway buffs to come and see the exhibition, whether or not they have tickets to see the musical. 

'The Schuyler Sisters & Their Circle'

WHEN: Through Dec. 29

WHERE: Albany Institute of History and Art

HOURS: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays.  

MORE INFO: albanyinstitute.org

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