It’s always interesting when old friends come up for sale. On my Spring trip with the American Folk Art Society to Portsmouth, New Hampshire I found out that a painting I have known since the early 1980s was on the market. It is set to be sold at the M. Austin and Jill R. Fine Collection sale at Northeast Auctions on August 7 as lot 578.
Not that I’m interested in buying it, although I would be if we didn’t have two other related portraits in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. The Fine portrait, marked “J. B.,” is actually one of a group of four known likenesses, all depicting children and all dated 1784, identified by descendants as residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This group includes our portraits of brother and sister John and Priscilla Wharff (or Wharf) illustrated here, and a portrait of Dorcas Lufkin in the collection of a descendant of the sitter.
At least three of these portraits show the young sitters in oblong ovals with drop-shadow lettering giving their initials in the upper corners and their ages in the lower corners. They all depict children between one and six years of age holding gender-appropriate props. The unidentified artist’s rendering of facial features is strikingly similar in each; the sitters all have almond-shaped eyes that are slightly misaligned, small mouths with cupid’s-bow lips, noses that appear flat against their faces, and ears that extend outward parallel to the picture plane. Their hands are rendered simply with dark outlines and gently bending fingers. Of the known portraits, “J.B.” is distinctive for its inclusion of a genre element in the charming vignette of the boy feeding his dog, and for the inclusion of articulated trees in the background.
Some scholars have suggested a stylistic relationship between this group of portraits and the work of Rufus Hathaway (1770-1822), but a number of factors weigh against an attribution. Hathaway was presumably born in Freetown, Rhode Island, and lived most of his life in Duxbury, in southeastern Massachusetts both far from Gloucester on the North Shore. His earliest known portraits, dated to about 1790, are considerably more highly developed than the ones depicted here (see “Lady with Her Pets,” 1790, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), below. It seems unlikely that a fourteen-year-old boy would be plying a portrait painter’s trade far from home in 1784.
Whoever it was that painted these likenesses – Northeast Auctions has now dubbed the artist the “Gloucester Limner" – there are bound to be more of these 18th-century gems waiting to be discovered. My hope is that one of them will have either a signature or a family history that will lead us to a new name in the history of early American folk art.