Monday, February 21, 2011


Here's another one of those folk artists whose work is so recognizable that there is no debate over attribution when an unsigned piece shows up on the market. Zedekiah Belknap is well known in folk art circles but not so much among the general art-viewing public. He worked mainly in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont between 1807 and the late 1840s as an itinerant portrait painter.

Belknap may not have originally intend to paint portraits for a living. In his youth, he actually entered divinity school at Dartmouth College in the hopes of becoming a minister. He graduated in 1807, and did preach for a few years, although he was never ordained. He began to paint portraits the same year he graduated from Dartmouth.

He didn't have much luck in his married life. Belknap married Sophia Sherman in Waterville, Maine in 1812, but she terminated the marriage shortly after. It seems that Belknap's relatives frightened her. Many of them were afflicted with a hereditary hip disease that left them limping.

Over the course of his forty-one year painting career, Belknap is known to have painted at least 170 portraits. They all have one thing in common, at least to my eye. Yes, it's the noses. All of Belknap's sitters, male and female, young and old, have the same bulbous nose outlined in a thick, reddish line of paint. The Fenimore Art Museum's "Two Children with a basket of Fruit," painted about 1830, is a great example of his work. I particularly like how the rounded forms of the fruit in the basket echo the two very prominent noses in this portrait. Those noses are better than any signature.

Belknap's bad luck continued throughout his lifetime. In 1857 he entered a Poor Farm near Weathersfield, Vermont and died there the following year. His delightful paintings form a legacy that belies the difficulties he endured in his 76-year life. It's both a pleasure and a relief that we never have to argue over whether any of them are really his.


  1. Maybe there were simply a large number of bulbous nosed families living in New england at that time? I wonder if the subjects of these portraits recognized this quirk in their own portraits?

  2. Thanks, as always, for your comment, Gary. Lots of physical quirks around at that time, but if noses like this were common they would appear in the works of other artists, which they do not. The record is silent as to whether people recognized this feature, although presumably there are more than 170 portraits by Belknap that were accepted and paid for. Remember this was before photography, so the standards of realism were far different than they are today.

  3. Very interesting post. I was initially attracted by your discussion of self-taught artists during the 19th c. I take your point too about the differences in expectations surrounding standards of realism.

    It occurs to me that you might find a piece written by Jennifer Allen Craft on Southern Folkart of interest. The post was published earlier this week - ( she's talking more about contemporary art, but you might find some of the other posts on that blog might be up your alley.

  4. That's a great post, Anna. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Very interesting artwork. The mix of the artists religious background with their somewhat grotesque mode of expression reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's style of writing. Interesting stuff.

  6. I strongly believe I have a painting by Zedekiah Belknap. It is of two sisters from Utica, NY and painted about 1835. The corkscrew hair, lips, red used in shading and the features are characteristic of his work. I would love to send you some pictures. my email address is Thanks!


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