Saturday, April 11, 2009

Philadelphia & early colonial portraiture/Portrait Miniatures & a delightful poem from 1758 in praise of a portrait artist

Next week the Philadelphia Antiques Show begins which features 50 of the leading antiques dealers and galleries. These exhibitors will show and sell fine examples of period furniture, folk and fine art, ceramics, porcelain, silver, jewelry and textiles. Of special interest is the featured loan exhibit this year entitled Patriots and Presidents: Philadelphia Portrait Miniatures, 1760-1860, which will chronicle more than a century of portrait miniatures, including those of Benjamin Franklin, one of Philadelphia's most famous citizen, as well as former presidents and patriots. “A collection of small, portable portraits depicting early Philadelphia's most prominent figures celebrates Philadelphia's history as the center of American government and commerce in the 18th and 19th centuries.”
(The pictured miniature is engraved on the reverse; "Garrit Van Horne - Married to - Ann Margaret Clarkson - 16 Novr 1784". Attributed to John Ramage (1748-1802), recently sold at auction.)
Thus I thought it appropriate to momentarily veer away from the fascinating story of Major Samuel Meeker, the Battle of Minisink, and Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), to begin to explore the art of portrait miniatures, and finally answer the question of whether Gilbert Stuart is also known for this style of Portraiture. But first let us begin with Early Philadelphia and colonial portraiture. Before the days of cameras, colonial gentry and members of the mercantile class documented their families and property by sitting for portraits. These portraits were often painted by itinerant artists, such as John Wollaston, who traveled throughout the colonies in search of commissions. Miniatures in gilded lockets were often the only visual remembrance of loved ones who might be separated by distance or death.
The following information I retrieved from Heirlooms in Miniatures by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton, Philadelphia, 1902. I include the most charming poem in praise of Wollaston taken from her book, describing the creation of a portrait.

“To John Woolaston (Wollaston), who painted in Philadelphia as early as 1758 and in Virginia a little later, we are indebted for a number of Colonial portraits. Among these is the only portrait extant of Martha Washington in her early matronhood….

(Martha Washington was painted by John Wollaston
in 1757 when she was 26 and reflects the ideal 18th
century woman, round face and sloping shoulders,
plump and graceful with waist confined by a lifetime in ‘stays’.)

…An interesting souvenir of Wollaston’s stay in Philadelphia is to be found in The American Magazine for September, 1758, in the form of some verses written by Francis Hopkinson, in which his youthful enthusiasm for the artist and his work found expression in the following lines:

Ofttimes with wonder and delight I stand,
To view the amazing conduct of your hand.
At first unlabour’d sketches lightly trace
The glimmering outlines of a human face;
Then by degrees the liquid life o’erflows
Each rising feature—the rich canvas glows
With heightened charms—the forehead rises fair,
And glossy ringlets twine the nut-brown hair;
The sparkling eyes give meaning to the whole
And seem to speak the dictates of a soul,
The lucid lips in rosy sweetness drest,
The well-turned neck and the luxuriant breast,
The silk that richly flows with graceful air—
All tell the hand of Wollaston was there."

The author does not mention any particular miniatures by John Wollaston. William Dunlap in his History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (see 'sources often used') provides only 2 sentences on Wollaston; “A gentleman of this name painted portraits in Philadelphia in 1758, and in Maryland as early as 1759-60. I know nothing more of him, but that Francis Hopkinson published verses in his praise in the American Magazine for September, 1758.” Dunlap did not deign to publish the poem. Typical man!

1 comment:

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