Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Enigmatic Foursome

Group portraits are usually pretty straightforward. You know how the father is, along with the mother and the children. If they do not depict obvious family members, as in my previous post about the strange group of ironers, these works can be very puzzling. This is one of our oddest examples of this phenomenon.

The "Enigmatic Foursome" came out of the barn of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn in the late 1950s, found there by Mary Allis and sold to Stephen C. Clark for the Fenimore Art Museum. It has never been considered one of our masterpieces, but it is interesting enough that we have included it regularly in our exhibitions and catalogues.

But what an odd assortment of individuals. Who are they and why would they have a picture taken together? The inclusion of the Black man, ostensibly on an equal standing as the others, is highly unusual for portraiture of the early 19th century (ca. 1835-50 seems a good guess for this painting). That aside, no two members of this group look related, and the laughing red-haired man in front seems particularly out of place.

Our former director, Lou Jones, always had a ready answer for conundrums like this. And his "answer" was usually delivered tongue-in-cheek. When he wrote about this painting in 1960 -- the title "Enigmatic Foursome" is his -- he thought that this was a traveling theatrical troupe of the type that performed in small town taverns and country fairs across rural America in the early decades of the 19th century.

It's not a bad guess. Look at the cast of characters: The Straight Man, at the top; the Ingenue, at the left; the Clown, at the bottom; and the Black character who would have danced and performed between sets. If Jones was right, this is really a very rare piece, documenting a form of early American entertainment in a manner that we just don't see in surviving examples. Even if this portrait depicts something other than a theatrical troupe, it is a remarkable survival of a group of people who by conventional standards have no right to occupy the same canvas. That is the enigma that this picture presents to this day.

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