Sunday, January 10, 2010

A thoroughly DAZZLING art-historical mystery; was The Circus Rider John Bill Ricketts or Jean Baptist Breschard? Read on, if interested!

My last two posts have described the painting by Stuart named The Circus Rider, and current art historians are (at least officially) unanimous that the sitter is no other than John Ricketts. Yet, in an indeed surprising development, Peter Breschard objects to this designation with much indignation, and in fact his evidence that the circus rider is NOT Ricketts, if not incontrovertibly solid as of yet, is just as COMPELLING, to my mind. Keep in mind that Mason (1894), identified the portrait as "Breschard, the circus-rider".

Adding to this high level of confusion are two inscriptions on the painting, generally agreed to have been added at a later date: (lower left) "Portrait of / Mr. Rickarts / Horse Eqestraine / Friend of the Artist / Gilbert Stuart" & (lower right) "Portrait of Rickarts / Horse Eqestrian / An Intimate Friend of / Gilbert Stuart." These interpretations are taken from "American Paintings of the 18 century" by Ellen G. Miles, National Gallery of Art, Washington. However, perhaps, these inscriptions themselves can be subject to another interpretation? In fact consider the French name Breschard: with a French hard pronunciation of the first letter B as P, and the last letter d as t, the name Breschard is pronounced and could be spelled as Preschart, and Lo and Behold to my mind, that left inscription looks incredibly like "Preschart", and NOT "Rickarts". The second insription to my eye also looks as if the name of the sitter begins with a "B" and ends with one t. Lawrence Park shows the spelling to be "Portrait of / Mr. Rechart /..." Which of course also sounds like the French pronunciation of Breschard. Mason, as well as Park, listing the sitter to be Breschard?

The story in short; John Bill Ricketts in his brief flash of fortune in America (he was from England) lasting less than 10 years, achieved fame and fortune by his magical ability to peform fantastical acts of daring on his well trained horses - using outlandish tricks, and later featuring other circus performers such as tightrope walkers and clowns. "Long before circuses took on the odor of a crude and common entertainment, Ricketts ... had an air of snob appeal; embraced by all classes, his circus became an especially prestigious venue for the right people to be seen at. After all, Washington, an unabashed fan, attended from time to time through his tenure in office. And the President and Ricketts regularly accompanied each other on rides through the city out into the countryside. Ricketts became such a prominent celebrity that Gilbert Stuart, Washington's portraitist, painted Ricketts, too. Washington even allowed Ricketts to put Jack - the famed white steed he rode through the American Revolution - on display in the amphitheater. Hence, a certain patriotic panache and status boost came with every seat. ......In 1797, Ricketts marked Washington's retirement with a special performance, and later that year, he performed for his friend's presidential successor, John Adams."

Thus Ricketts meets that special quality which characterizes the majority of Stuart's sitters, a man of action and accomplishment who hobnobbed with the right people, those in the elite and elegant, well-funded social circles. He was in the right place (Philadelphia), and the right time period to cross paths with Stuart. He was multi-talented; besides performing, he built his own circus structures. Just the type of man who might appeal to our artist, who knew so much about everything. And more compelling, the most powerful evidence: The Provenance lists the brother of John Ricketts, Francis Ricketts, as being the first owner (Brown 1861, 320.) The following has been speculated by Ellen Miles: "Stuart undoubtedly painted Ricketts' portrait in Philadelphia, where the circus was based. The portrait remained there, unfinished, after Ricketts left for the West Indies." ("American Paintings of the 18 century" p 210). Is it possible that Stuart didn't complete the portrait, and so whimsically painted the horses' head created from the background, due less to anger than nostalgia that a good friend was gone? Did the portrait remain unfinished because the talented John Ricketts incurred catastrophic financial loss when his circus rotunda building burned to the ground in 1799? His brother was last recorded in the United States in 1810, when he was with the Boston Circus ("American Paintings of the 18 century" p 210), and thus the portrait would have passed to him when John met his death on the oceans in 1803.

But, is it possible the painting was done at a later time, that it was stopped out of frustration with the sitter (Breschard), and that by this time Stuart had become increasingly more willful and temperamental with his sitters corresponding to the extent of his fame? “...the artist, becoming angry at the equestrian, who gave him a good deal of trouble by his want of promptitude and the delays which occurred, is said to have dashed his paintbrush into the face of the portrait, declaring that he would have nothing more to do with him.” J. Thomas Scharf and T. Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 (Philadelphia: L.H.Everts and Co. 1884), Vol II, p 1044

The Circus of Pépin and Breschard

Pépin and Breschard were the premiere performers in the U.S. from 1808 until 1815. At left is a playbill for this circus. Our Jean Breschard clearly is a prominent performer, if not the owner alongside Mr. Pepin.

In the Provenance for the Circus Rider shown above, a Peter Grain is listed as the next owner after Francis Ricketts, "Purchased at auction around 1853 by Peter Grain." Peter Grain was an artist, known for his "panorama paintings, landscapes, portraits, theatrical designs, as well as also being a playwright and architect; he was the author of at least one stage play. His family was involved in theatrical design in New York, Philadelphia and other major American cities for at least two generations."

"American Paintings of the 18 century", in 'Notes' on Peter Grain..."A painter, was born in France around 1786... and came to the US sometime before 1815. After living in various American cities, including New York and Charleston, he settled in Philadelphia around 1850 with his family..."
The playbill above shows that Grain could have crossed paths with Breschard in "Charlestown".

In the playbill below, found and kindly provided to me by Peter Breschard, is incontrovertible evidence that in fact Peter Grain knew Breschard in c 1809! Grain was an actor in the play "Billy" performed on this summer eve. Is it not likely that Peter Grain was the one who identified, or at a minimum WOULD BE ABLE TO IDENTIFY the sitter as Jean Breschard, as he knew and even worked with this circus artist? Thus we have reasonable, logical evidence as to HOW the portrait was identified as Breschard. On the basis of this knowledge,...which possibly may not be known by the (current) experts?... might a new look at the identifcation of THE CIRCUS RIDER be in order? Afterall, Someone identified the portrait, because there are the inscriptions, which to my eye look like a French pronunciation of Breschard. How solid, in fact, IS the Brown attribution that Francis Ricketts was the first owner? How credible is this source? Is he known for accuracy? (Thomas Allston Brown, "A Complete History of the Amphitheatre and Circus, from its earliest date, with sketches of some of the principal performers," New York Clipper 8 (19 January 1861).

For more information on Peter Breschard, who has used original sources in his in-depth investigation on the identification of the sitter in this portrait, he can be found at He plans on writing a book on this topic and hopes to interest a publisher. He would enjoy any input on the subject!

And thus, I have exhausted all effort here, and leave it to the experts & other researchers to thrash this out, and perhaps take a second look at this re-identification from Breschard to Ricketts.
And in the meantime I have the following suggestion. Perhaps there are more descendents out there, from both the Ricketts and Breschard families. In my own case, I was suddenly astonished to notice that there were remarkable similarities between Meeker and some members of my family; below is an example and more will follow. Check the nose! the chin! can you look at younger pictures of your ancestors and find remarkable/notable similarites to the portrait of Ricketts/Breschard? Send them to me! Lets fly with this mystery, and not be stuck with one mind-set.....

Never forget Stuart's ability to nail an almost photographic image to the canvas.................

Below Benjamin Hyde Cory (1896-1983) my grandfather, gg-grandson of Phebe Meeker (twin sister of Samuel Meeker.)

the dimple in the bottom lip... the slightly upraised peak of the right side of the upper lip...rounded chin


The Clever Pup said...

How wonderful in this big world that there are two people researching the same thing!

I've read some of Peter's entries and I'm left wondering...why would the hobnobbing Gibby paint Breschard? It makes much more sense that he would paint Ricketts.

Einbildungskraft said...

Yes, Hazel, that does seem intuitive. But perhaps movin' and shakin' with the right crowd was more imporant to Stuart in his early years, when finding clients was so important and not a sure thing after having recently moved back to America from England in '93(to paint Washington to "make money")--whereas by 1807 or post Washington portraits, which would be the time frame for painting Breschard, he was/could be... lets say, increasingly interested just in the money side of things, his clientele base assured by this point?
I'm not sure what it is about this particular portrait, but, it SO DOESN'T have an old-fashioned air. If Meeker was done in 1803, and the circus rider in late 1790-ies, (ie earlier), why does it seem the hair style of the handsome young man is... so modern? Well, it looks modern to me!! :-) You're the fashion guru, what do you think!

Einbildungskraft said...

My prediction:

The identification of John Ricketts, as the sitter in The Circus Rider, will be overturned within 10 years, and will be redesignated as Jean Breschard.

If Francis Ricketts was first owner of the painting, what descendant of his passed it on to Barlow who brought it to auction, when P. Grain bought it? Can this be verified? Did Francis take it to Barlow (the dealer)? Highly unlikely. I would be more comfortable with the Ricketts ID, if this claim (That brother Francis Ricketts was first owner) was made by Barlow, and not T. A. Brown.

Perfect thesis for doctoral dissertation BTW.

My Farmhouse Kitchen said...

Just dropping in to say Hi from San Luis Obispo...

looks like we are going to get some rain...and I will be reading your post then....looks very interesting....

more later


emikk said...

Could it be someone else besides the 2 "contenders?"

The Clever Pup said...

Gee Beth, I don't know about the hair. All these guys wore wigs for "good" in those days.

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