Portrait of a Mother: Eliza Clerc Makes Her Deafness Visible, 1822

Clerc Boardman Marriage Announcement

Their wedding in 1819 was perhaps the first of its kind in the United States: the union of deaf man and a deaf woman.

When Laurent Clerc agreed to travel to America in 1817 to help Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet learn sign language and establish a school for the deaf, he made it clear he would be returning to France in 1820. That changed when he met 23-year old Eliza Boardman, one of his first students at the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford. By 1818, they were betrothed.

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, 1822

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc, 1822. (From a photo by the author, Wadsworth Atheneum, 2014.)

The news of their engagement was not met with universal joy. Gallaudet himself opposed the match. Conventional wisdom held that the deaf should not intermarry. Eliza nor Laurent were not congenitally deaf, but most people of the era assumed that deaf parents would inevitably produce deaf children. There was also a question of logistics: how could a deaf mother ever tend to the needs of her children?

Quite well, as it turned out. Eliza and Laurent had six children, all born with normal hearing. The two were married for fifty years – just a normal, pleasant couple who happened to communicate through sign language.

In 1822, they both sat for their portraits with the great Charles Wilson Peale. Eliza could have easily chosen to let her deafness be invisible. Instead, she decided to immortalize her role as a deaf mother, her daughter Elizabeth on her lap, her right hand signing their shared initial.

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