These two portraits of an unknown man and woman in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, signed by A. Ellis, are among my favorites folk art paintings of all time. We know so little about the artist; no biographical data at all, in fact. About fifteen likenesses are ascribed to him (or her), and all come from the Readfield-Waterville area of central Maine. Not exactly on the way to anywhere.
The data we have, of course, is the paintings themselves. Look at these two. Ellis obviously had no artistic training in how to reproduce the observed world naturalistically. No shade or shadow, no three-dimensional modeling, no realistic surface textures. Our couple is sharply retooled into flat, decorative patterns. Lou Jones, our former director, used to say that if you wanted to create paintings to teach what folk art was supposed to look like, you would have ended up with paintings like these. It seems apparently that Ellis may have been experienced in furniture or wall decoration, where patterns prevailed.
The decorative quality of the woman’s portrait is particularly intriguing. The curls in her hair, the scallops of her costumes, and especially her noodle arm, all exemplify the rhythm and repetition of form that we see in the best folk art. The details that Ellis added, including the flattened facial features and jewelry as well as the nosegay in the woman’s right hand, all add considerable visual interest to the pair. It’s a pity we don’t know who they were.
Every time I see our pair I am reminded of a great A. Ellis portrait that was found by the legendary New England collector Nina Fletcher Little, whose collection now belongs to Historic New England. I have blogged about Nina in the past; she was amazing. Almost everything she acquired had a history, and her Ellis was no exception. It is a portrait of Diantha Atwood Gordon (below) done in about 1832. Like our portraits, it is done in oil on wood panel and measures about 30 x 25 inches, a standard portrait size.
Nina Little was first and foremost a historian of New England. Nothing -- no object or painting -- was complete without a history behind it, and she took great pains to acquire that history when she collected something. When she acquired her portrait of Diantha, she did something extraordinary. She tracked down the granddaughter of the sitter (still possible in those early days of collecting!). The great-granddaughter told a story about her grandmother, Diantha’s daughter, who hated her mother so much that she locked her in an outhouse, where she was not discovered until evening.
Casually viewing the portrait of Diantha in a gallery would never bring to mind a mental picture like that. I guess we should count our blessings that Diantha’s portrait survived her daughter’s wrath.