Most museum labels don't provide a lot of insight. It seems that many curators are content with sharing only the basic data on a piece, like the title, artist, date, and medium. Oh, and the donor. It's rare to read any thoughts or opinions on the part of the people who know these works best.
This painting, which I saw in my trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts back in February, was an exception. The label struck me as a clever bit of insight into this guy, who was painted by the itinerant folk artist Ammi Phillips in Troy,New York, in about 1820.
His name was Jonas Coe, and he was a Presbyterian minister. According tot he label, a writer from the time period left us with our only verbal picture of Reverend Coe: "Great in character rather than in intellect, wit, or eloquence." Translation: boring and long-winded.
The curators who wrote the label astutely point out the visual clues to this man's lack of ability to engage his parishioners. His right hand is open and arm extended as if lamely making a point, and the fingers of his left hand mark the page in his Bible that is no doubt the source of his sermon. As the label points out, a "pedantic" style rather than an inspired one.
The last line of the label, which addresses the Rev. Coe's face, is priceless. "His dour expression augurs sterns and lengthy sermons." I wonder how many of these Ammi Phillips had to sit through in order to be able to express so beautifully the dullard's countenance and gestures.