Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ugliest. Baby. Ever.

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.


  1. I know you said not to try to convince you, but I find this painting very striking, and it could be the star attraction of an ugly baby exhibition. (You must have some other ugly baby paintings?) If nothing else, it would be interesting to see if a marketing hype would lend a certain mystique to the painting sufficient to draw a crowd.

    On another note, the position of the mother's hands made me laugh. It's almost as if she's saying, "Here, take this away!"

  2. I think you are exaggerating what you consider the ugliness of this baby. As a museum curator, I am surprised that just because you don't like a work, you are so prejudiced against it. I am wondering something much more important, and that is if this might be a picture of a baby that didn't survive very long. It is very pale and held at an awkward angle, perhaps not by the mother, but some one in the family. This could
    explain the odd presentation.
    Its a shame that your dislike usually keeps others from seeing this curious painting. I hope you will reconsider and share it more in future. In any case, thank you for this opportunity to view it.

  3. The baby may not be traditionally beautiful but he or she sure has strong folk art appeal. I especially like how the adult is holding out the baby as if the child were a plate of food.

  4. Wow. A spirited defense of this painting by all. Thanks, everyone! I must say that despite the fact that I am not enamored of this painting as a work of art, I do value it highly as a study piece and would not consider deaccessioning it, as many curators would. Your responses make me all the more curious about whether exhibiting it may not be a bad idea. Thanks!

  5. The more I look at this painting the more I believe it is a painting of a dead baby.No color on its cheeks and so pale. Here is another in Richard Guggenheim's collection. A prettier painting, but a similar subject. The hands may be a midwife's.
    There is also the famous (though not folk art) painting "Rachel Weeping" by Charles Wilson Peale, right here in the Phila. Museum of Art.
    In the Guggenheim painting, the child's eyes are also open. Not so in the Peale, but the babies are all very pale and dressed in white.
    Later in the 19th century with the advent of photography, paintings of this sort began to be replaced by photos.
    Makes me want to do some further detective work, as I am sure there's a story behind your painting. Though we may never know it.

  6. Detective work is almost always called for with these works, but in this case I wouldn't know where to start. Thanks for the comparison works!

  7. Perhaps what we're looking at is a baby with hydrocephalus or some other kind of birth defect, but was still loved and whose parents wanted to remember him/her, even if the child died relatively soon after birth. Or a portrait by someone who wanted to record this baby but had no real training in perspective. I wouldn't call it an ugly baby: instead, I would call it an awkwardly-executed portrait.


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