I admit that I’ve been a very bad blogger this week, owing mainly to the pressing deadline for the publication of the exhibition catalogue for the traveling exhibition “Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection,” which opens at the Cleveland Museum of Art on March 7. In between rounds of proofreading I was thinking of posts that might be appropriate for this Valentines Day weekend, and recalled one of my favorite couples from the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection.
This pair of pastel portraits was done in about 1790, probably in Connecticut. They are a memorable pair for a variety of reasons. It’s amazing they ever survived for us to see them, first of all. Pastel is a delicate medium, chalky and prone to falling to the bottom of the frame if bumped too hard. These portraits were among those treasures found in the barn of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn of Newtonville, Massachusetts, after their death in 1958. I wrote about the Gunn Collection in a previous post. Suffice it to say that an old New England barn is not a safe place to store pastels, or any works on paper.
Our New England couple is memorable for another reason. Look at their faces. Yes, it was a hard life in the early Republic, but these two go beyond tough. Their faces are decided uncomfortable, troubled, anxious. Turbulent. The rendering of their faces is, well, maybe a little too honest. Trained artists had skills and training that allowed them to flatter their sitters. Make them look a decade younger, a few pounds lighter, and better looking. The folk artist’s approach is, by contrast, called “warts and all.”
It was the turbulence in the faces, though, that lead me to the likely artist for this pair. There was another artist, an untrained limner, or portrait painter, working in Connecticut in the late 18th century who was known to capture the angst of his sitters in vivid facial expression such as these. His name was Winthrop Chandler, and an example of his work, a 1770 portrait of the Reverend Ebenezer Gay, can be seen here. You can see the similarity to our pair.
It is a shame that we don’t know the identity of our couple. In some ways, though, it gives us the freedom to call them whatever we want. The preferred name, since the late 1950s when they were acquired, is The Neurotic New England Couple. You won’t see this on any of our labels; it’s an oral tradition carried on only in my gallery tours. No one ever argues with the diagnosis.
Paul D'Ambrosio is President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and oversees one of the best folk art collections in the United States. He has organized exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He is also Adjunct Professor of American Folk Art in the Cooperstown Graduate Program for Museum Studies and the author of numerous books and articles about American folk art.