Friday, May 28, 2010

A King Uncrowned

In the folk art world, most scholarly battles are wars of attribution, not attrition. I was reminded of the sometimes fierce exchanges regarding who painted what when I walked though the folk art gallery of the Fenimore Art Museum today and saw our new case full of miniatures. Included in this arrangement are two small watercolor portraits signed by the Connecticut artist James Sanford Ellsworth.

The Ellsworth do not look like paintings that scholars would fight over; the style is so distinctive and bears no resemblance to that of any other known artist of the early and mid-nineteenth century. But in fact there was a battle over these tiny works, and it took place nearly 80 years ago.

The March 1932 issue of The Magazine Antiques carried an article with the headline “King versus Ellsworth.” In the article one Julia D. Sophronia Snow (I love these nineteenth-century names) related a conversation she had with an old woman who had been painted as a child in a watercolor miniature that looked for all the world like an Ellsworth seen at left below, in black and white). The woman insisted that the work (unsigned, by the way) was not by anyone named Ellsworth; rather it was done by “Josiah King, the man without legs, who rode about the country in a dogcart, peddling cutlery, framing pictures, and painting portraits.” For a blogger like me with a taste for the strange and unusual, this sounded too good to be true.

Ms. Snow went on to detail the results of her research into the life of Mr. King, and took great pains to describe the similarities and differences between his style and Ellsworth’s, using the old woman’s portrait as her basis. Her final words in the article were: “Collectors, look to your past ascriptions! Some of your haloed Ellsworths may have to be recrowned as Kings!” Even the Editor of the magazine weighed in to say that Snow had “won the encounter, and that, in consequence, many a crude little likeness hitherto ascribed to Ellsworth must be credited to another hand.”

It took more than twenty years for someone to mount a response. In the Autumn 1953 issue of Art in America, Lucy B. Mitchell published her research on Ellsworth. Apparently in response to the enduring notion that King painted some of these portraits, Mitchell poses a series of key questions, ones that should have been asked by the Editor of Antiques a generation earlier.

Why isn’t portraiture mentioned on King’s business card?

Why did King’s children, when interviewed, have no knowledge that he painted miniatures?

Why have no miniatures ascribable to King been found among his descendents or neighbors?

And the crucial question, at least for me: Why have no signatures by King ever been found on these miniatures?

Her conclusion: because King never painted them; Ellsworth did. Basing a body of work on the recollections of one elderly woman is too speculative to be taken seriously. I was surprised to find out that Josiah King managed to rule for twenty years, and disappointed to learn that there probably never was a legless folk artist who traveled the countryside in a dogcart pulled by two Newfoundland dogs.

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