Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Two heads are better than one

It appears that the Blogger polling gadget is working fine, with 20 voted so far and the results viewable at the right. I set the gadget to accept votes until 4 pm today, so by all means give it a try if you are so inclined. As I said in my post from Sunday, the real voting starts on TUESDAY, DECEMBER 1ST. Meanwhile, here's a new post.

This painting is truly one of our horrors. It is an 1840s portrait that depicts an unidentified gentleman holding a cane. You can tell by the way that it was painted that the artist had no particular talent in either naturalistic rendering or bold, colorful patterning of shapes and forms. There’s no realism, and no visual interest. Plus, the man scowls at the viewer like sitting for his portrait was a form of torture.

The painting was found in Rhode Island in the 1940s by Agnes Halsey Jones, the wife of our former director Louis c. Jones. She admitted to me some years ago that the only reason she bought this was that she was new to the field and had just discovered “primitives,” as folk art was then called. So she bought everything she found. She was quick to say that this work was a piece of junk, really, and not worthy of the Fenimore Art Museum collection.

Except for one small detail. Actually two details, that make this painting raise the eyebrows of every folk art specialist who has seen it, including me.
Take a look at the back. The painting was never relined so you are able to see the original reverse of the canvas. It’s different from any others that I have ever seen in my 27 years of looking at this material.

There are two painted heads on the back, one at the top and the other, upside down, at the bottom. The one at the top is clearly a woman, and the one at the bottom a child. The artist apparently used the reverse of the canvas to practice two other portraits, perhaps of the man’s wife and child. He even coated the surface of the reverse with a grey ground, a common practice for the design surface on the front to make the porous canvas surface readily hold paint.

With the reverse of the painting as it is, this artwork must be considered a rare surviving piece of evidence of the working methods of a folk painter. And worth keeping. But not exhibiting any time soon. We don’t make it a practice to scare small children.


  1. Gee, I like this painting! Yes, the visage is grim, but the form is strongly delineated and the character presented is forceful. I enjoy the linear flow from parted hair to neckcloth to lapels, down to the hands. The deep shadowing of the eyes is very expressive. My only regret is that the artist cut off one of the hands, or is it perhaps hidden by the lower part of the frame? I think it's a powerful work (of course seeing it online is a different experience than seeing it "in the flesh".)

  2. You know, doing a post about it has made me like it a bit more than I did before. But you're right, seeing it in the flesh is very different than in the pictures here. The brushwork is just sloppy, and the hands are big and hammy. We have so many portrait masterpieces that this thing never has a chance of getting on exhibit. The reverse, however, is amazing.


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