Mr. Nickerson’s bearded likeness is the only one of the family that, at the moment, graces our historic photograph gallery, leaving visitors wondering: What about Mrs. Nickerson?
As far as looks go, here she is in a 1901 oil painting by Raimundo De Madrazo: Mathilda Pinkham Nickerson. The painter, well known for portraits depicting those in the upper reaches of society, captured Mrs. Nickerson at 64 years old with an expression of dignity and gentleness.
Mathilda was a cousin of Samuel’s, the daughter of Isaac and Eunice Crosby and born in Brewster, Massachusetts in 1837. She married Samuel in 1858, and it was thanks to her father that Mr. Nickerson got his start here in Chicago—a liquor distiller, he gave Samuel a leg-up into the business during his first years in the city.
Mrs. Nickerson, like many other women in her social class during the Gilded Age, focused her attentions on the household—supervising domestic staff and determining menus, flower arrangements, interior decorations, and dress for formal receptions and dinners at the mansion.
Her bravery is likely due to the fact that she was the great lover of art in the family; she apparently wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. She didn’t catch the thieves—they had already slipped out—but their impressive art collection, even missing these pieces,, remained one of the best in the Midwest. Mrs. Nickerson was the one who orchestrated the gift of that collection to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1900, and even after moving back East, she made regular visits to Chicago to personally supervise the cleaning and rearrangement of the collection, which was displayed as a whole. According to an Art Institute bulletin distributed just after her death in 1912, she was one of the institution’s “best friends. … Her presence was always most welcome.”
Mathilda Pinkham Nickerson, 1901. Raimundo De Madrazo (1841-1920). Oil on canvas.