Constantino Brumidi resided briefly in New York City after immigrating to America in 1852. He was 47 years old. During that time, Brumidi accepted portrait commissions to earn a living and establish himself as an artist in this country. One of these early portraits is the work known today as Portrait of a Child with Moth, signed on the reverse “C. Brumidi 1853.” Brumidi did not sign the majority of his portraits, but his signature and date can be found on a number of paintings from 1852 to 1853, when he embarked on his career in America.
The young sitter in Child with Moth is identified as Kate Bennitt, according to an inscription on the reverse of the painting. While in New York, Brumidi completed several portraits for the Bennitt family, as well as three allegorical paintings for the family’s Southhampton, Long Island, home. The family descended from Caleb Bennitt, who had served under General George Washington in 1772. Kate was the eldest daughter of George Bennitt, who owned prosperous farmland in Steuben County, New York.
Brumidi’s portrait of Kate appears to combine allegory with portraiture. The style is in keeping with the three scenes of Hope, Plenty, and Progress  that Brumidi executed for a ceiling in the Bennitt family’s home. Two of these allegories depict female figures posed against a background of clouds, adorned with billowing drapery. In Child with Moth, the artist places two-and-a-half-year-old Kate in a setting of heavenly clouds, cloaked in pink silk drapery rather than typical Victorian attire. Her hands delicately cradle a large moth.
In painting and literature, butterflies and moths traditionally represent transience. Victorians viewed childhood as an idealistic phase of life, with a distinct identity of its own. The butterfly or moth serves as an attribute of childhood, representing the delicate nature of youth and fleeting passage of time. This sense of fragility and the impending darkness of the clouds in Child with Moth are all the more poignant with hindsight: Kate would not survive her eighth birthday. Child mortality rates were high in the 19th century and parents often lost more than one offspring to childhood illnesses. Catherine Eulalie Bennitt, born on October 7, 1851, died October 5, 1859, just shy of her birthday. A brother died in infancy.
Portrait of Child with Moth pre-dates Brumidi’s career in the Capitol (Brumidi was hired to complete his first frescoes in 1855), but it anticipates the highly allegorical style that Brumidi used to infuse the nation’s Capitol with symbolism and meaning.
1. Donated to the Architect of the Capitol, through the Capitol Historical Society, by Howard and Sara Pratt.
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