When I first saw these small watercolors many years ago in the folk art galleries of the Fenimore Art Museum, I thought for sure that they were some kind of joke. A cartoon or caricature of an old woman smoking a pipe. Billows of smoke forming in front of her feisty face. Very hard to take seriously, until (as always) you learn more.
They depict the venerable Martha Barnes of Middletown, Connecticut, who was, as the inscription on one of the paintings indicates, 96 years old when they were done. Martha was blessed with a long life but not an easy one. She was born in 1738 and was married at the age of twenty to Jabez Barnes, a sailor. He was lost at sea in the West Indies in 1780, leaving Martha to raise the couple’s eight children. She did so, spending her entire life in Middletown. Martha died at the age of 96 in 1834, and was remembered as a strong-willed and devoutly religious woman who was absent from church only two half-days during the last twenty years of her life.
She had a grandson with a gift for painting but some challenges of his own. Lucius Barnes was born in 1819 to Martha’s son Elizur, and at the age of four contracted a spinal disease that left him with only the use of his hands and toes. He spent his childhood and young adulthood confined to a wheelchair.
At about the time of his grandmother’s death in 1834, Lucius painted about six watercolors of her in a couple of different poses: sitting and reading the Bible or standing with a cane and smoking what must have been a trademark pipe. Lucius died two years later, in 1836, at just seventeen.
It’s not entirely clear why Lucius painted these portraits, but one of them was discovered bound within a copy of John Cookson's book on Martha entitled "The Memoir of Martha Barnes, Late of Middletown, Connecticut" (1834) It is possible that some of these nearly identical drawings may have served originally as frontispiece illustrations to this text.
In any case, what we should really see in these amusing little watercolors is not so much the humor inherent in the subject, although that is inescapable and harmless. Knowing the story behind the pictures, I now can’t help but see the intersection of two difficult lives, one long and one short, expressed with immutable affection, clarity and charm.