This painting is truly one of our horrors. It is an 1840s portrait that depicts an unidentified gentleman holding a cane. You can tell by the way that it was painted that the artist had no particular talent in either naturalistic rendering or bold, colorful patterning of shapes and forms. There’s no realism, and no visual interest. Plus, the man scowls at the viewer like sitting for his portrait was a form of torture.
The painting was found in Rhode Island in the 1940s by Agnes Halsey Jones, the wife of our former director Louis c. Jones. She admitted to me some years ago that the only reason she bought this was that she was new to the field and had just discovered “primitives,” as folk art was then called. So she bought everything she found. She was quick to say that this work was a piece of junk, really, and not worthy of the Fenimore Art Museum collection.
Except for one small detail. Actually two details, that make this painting raise the eyebrows of every folk art specialist who has seen it, including me.
Take a look at the back. The painting was never relined so you are able to see the original reverse of the canvas. It’s different from any others that I have ever seen in my 27 years of looking at this material.
There are two painted heads on the back, one at the top and the other, upside down, at the bottom. The one at the top is clearly a woman, and the one at the bottom a child. The artist apparently used the reverse of the canvas to practice two other portraits, perhaps of the man’s wife and child. He even coated the surface of the reverse with a grey ground, a common practice for the design surface on the front to make the porous canvas surface readily hold paint.
With the reverse of the painting as it is, this artwork must be considered a rare surviving piece of evidence of the working methods of a folk painter. And worth keeping. But not exhibiting any time soon. We don’t make it a practice to scare small children.