I stumbled across this painting just today while attending a meeting in collections storage. It's a piece I know well from the 1980s, but haven't seen in a while. It was thrilling to see it again for a couple of reasons. One, it IS the ugliest folk art baby I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Second, and more important, it is one of the great study pieces in the field.
Looking at the painting, one would feel pretty confident that it was cut down from a larger painting. It seems so spontaneous and open-form for a 19th-century folk portrait. But studying more closely reveals two insights that work against such a conclusion. The arms are positioned in a way that would make for a very awkward pose on the part of the mother if she were once included. And if you look closely at the edges of the paint surface you can see the original canvas pattern (visible in the paint) scallops along the left side. This indicates that this was the original tacking edge, which would have pulled the canvas where the nails were placed at intervals.
But looking at the exposed canvas along the unpainted edges reveals more strangeness. The weave of this canvas is much finer than the pattern in the painted surface. Was the original canvas simply mounted on a new one? There is no evidence of a second layer of canvas anywhere.
So what happened? Well, this painting is a rare survival of a canvas transfer done many years ago by an known restorer (probably not a professional conservator). The paint surface was literally peeled off the original canvas (keeping the canvas pattern as a "fossil") and laid onto a new one to stabilize the painting. And as far as we know, it is an original composition showcasing the obvious pride in one's newborn, however misplaced that pride might be.
I've never considered exhibiting this portrait. It's a aesthetic horror. Don't even try to convince me otherwise. But I have never considered getting rid of it either. It's the only example of this kind of physical evidence that I know of, and is a great piece to sue for getting my graduate students to look closely at a painting. I also like having this picture around when I'm in need of a good laugh.