Sunday, April 3, 2011

Portrait of a Dullard as a Long-Winded Preacher

Most museum labels don't provide a lot of insight. It seems that many curators are content with sharing only the basic data on a piece, like the title, artist, date, and medium. Oh, and the donor. It's rare to read any thoughts or opinions on the part of the people who know these works best.

This painting, which I saw in my trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts back in February, was an exception. The label struck me as a clever bit of insight into this guy, who was painted by the itinerant folk artist Ammi Phillips in Troy,New York, in about 1820.

His name was Jonas Coe, and he was a Presbyterian minister. According tot he label, a writer from the time period left us with our only verbal picture of Reverend Coe: "Great in character rather than in intellect, wit, or eloquence." Translation: boring and long-winded.

The curators who wrote the label astutely point out the visual clues to this man's lack of ability to engage his parishioners. His right hand is open and arm extended as if lamely making a point, and the fingers of his left hand mark the page in his Bible that is no doubt the source of his sermon. As the label points out, a "pedantic" style rather than an inspired one.

The last line of the label, which addresses the Rev. Coe's face, is priceless. "His dour expression augurs sterns and lengthy sermons." I wonder how many of these Ammi Phillips had to sit through in order to be able to express so beautifully the dullard's countenance and gestures. 


  1. Yet, Rev Coe is staring right at us, actually at
    the artist, indicating sincerity? I think it indicates
    he posed for the portrait. Maybe he grew bored
    having to hold the pose.

  2. Thanks for the comment, CC! If not for the writer's assessment of Rev. Coe's speaking abilities I might have thought the same thing. Boring or not, he definitely looks sincere.

  3. I love seeing this portrait at the MFA, which came from Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little's Collection! When the Littles obtained this portrait from descendants of the Coe family, they also acquired several personal items of Rev. Coe's, including his spectacles, his clerical collars, and an account book recording his salary payments while in Troy. Hopefully these are now also at the MFA. - Kristen Weiss, Site Manager, Cogswell's Grant, Essex, Mass.

  4. Thanks, Kristen! I neglected to note the provenance on the label and the connection to the Littles. What an enhancement it would be to see his personal effects and account book along with the portrait. They were not on view (understandable given the space constraints and the number of artworks exhibited in the MFA's new wing) and I do not know if they ended up at the MFA. I'll do some digging and see if I can find out.

    Thanks again!

  5. I find it interesting that you can judge someone without knowing them.
    This is my grandfather and I think you need to research about what a fine man he was. There is a book where after his death people wrote testament after testament to his character and love he showed his members of his church. I hope someday to get to Boston to view the painting in person.

  6. hmmm...if he was your grandfather that would make you at least 170 years old. Are you posting this comment through a medium?


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