This may be one of the most interesting and instructive pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection. As such, it has a special status in relation to all of the other paintings in the collection.
That’s because it is a fake. A rare fake by a famous forger.
In 1990 Robert Lawrence Trotter was sentenced to 10 months in Federal prison for the forgery and sale of American folk paintings. Trotter was a talented artist in his own right, but was unable to sell his works. So he started forging the works of other historical painters whose works did have a ready market. One FBI agent explained: “He’d go into antiques shops, buy old frames, use square nails and ultraviolet light to cause certain cracks to occur. He wouldn’t copy, but he’d paint in the famous artist’s style. Sometimes he would sign their name, sometimes he wouldn’t.”
When Trotter was sentence to federal prison, he was ordered to give four of his fake paintings to Yale University so that they could be studied for future use in identifying forgeries.
There are 55 known Trotter fakes, only 16 of which have ever been recovered. That’s what makes our example so rare.
Looking at the piece, you can see right away why Trotter was successful, at least for a while. It is beautifully painted in a style consistent with what one might expect for 19th-century New England portraiture.
To my eye, however, there are some red flags. The baby here is too stylized and awkwardly proportioned in relation to the mother. The mother herself bears too much resemblance to the works of known folk artists like Noah North and Milton Hopkins. Overall, the work strikes me as a pastiche of different styles rather than one uniform manner of painting. I'm sure there are other technical ways in which a conservator could determine that this work is not authentic as well, but in the field one has to rely on a practiced eye.
The real clue, for me, is the reverse, which most people don’t inspect when they buy a painting. You can see quite clearly here that although the stretcher is clearly old, the canvas is not. Dead giveaway, in my opinion.
There are 55 known Trotter fakes, only 16 of which have ever been recovered. Ours and the four at Yale are the only ones I know of in public collections. Ours was donated by a private individual who wanted a public record of Trotter's fakes so that others would not be fooled. So like those at Yale, our Trotter is available for study by any qualified individual interested in learning more about the technical process of creating a work of art that isn’t what it appears to be.