The son of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Nicola Marschall left Germany for the United States in 1849, arriving in New Orleans and settling at Mobile. Shortly thereafter, Marschall moved to Marion, Alabama, where he set up a studio and established himself as a leading portraitist. In 1851, he joined the faculty of the Marion Female Institute as an instructor of art and language. In 1857, Marschall returned to Europe, and over the next two years studied painting in Düsseldorf, Munich, Rome, and Paris, before returning to Marion in 1859. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Marschall provided designs for the Confederate flag and military uniform, and is therefore often called the “Artist of the Confederacy.”
This portrait, one of three commissioned by the Robins family (the other two depicted the sitter’s husband and daughter), was painted immediately after Marschall’s return from Europe. Dressed in black, Mrs. Robins’ taste in fashion might have tended toward the austere; however, several clues point to the possibility that she may have been in mourning at the time. In addition to her outfit, which is consistent with nineteenth-century mourning costume, Mrs. Robins wears a pietra dura (Italian, “hard stone”) brooch, a popular type of inlaid stone jewelry crafted in Florence, Italy, which was sometimes used as mourning jewelry, particularly when embellished with a flower with symbolic meaning. Mrs. Robins’ brooch displays the lily of the valley, a flower strongly connected with death and funerary customs in the nineteenth century. The corners of the frame are adorned with morning glories, a flower often associated with the death of children, because its petals wither quickly after they bloom. Additional research may reveal whether or not Mrs. Robins lost a child shortly before this portrait was painted.