Friday, July 22, 2011

Determining a genuine Gilbert Stuart portrait is not always easy!

It is well-known that Stuart did not sign his paintings, he felt that a portrait of his WAS the signature! I received a mail, from someone who wanted to know if I thought that the portrait of his ancestor was a Stuart.

"I think I have a Gilbert Stuart portrait of my ancestor David Bradlee. He lived in Boston and was the son of a Boston Tea Party participant. See the attached portrait and let me know what you think."

I wrote back:

"Hi Ted, Thanks for sending me your note! My inclination is to say that it is not a Stuart. However, what also helps in the determination (since Stuart didn't sign his pics) is more factual information, did any other individual in his social, familial, or business circle have their portrait done by the master that you know of? Stuart moved to Boston in 1805...can you place how old your ancestor is (do you know family lines) and does this jive with dates? I am not an expert. But looks to me like the touches that make a Stuart a Stuart are missing, could have been done in 'that prevailing style'... but in general its safer to say that it is not, than it is! Where is the portrait now? I recommend that you beef up the information on your ancestor, be able to determine the ownership through the generations, point out how your ancestor was able to afford the master. My ancestor started a bank, got the first loan of $30,000. and owned a villa, his cousin was also painted by Stuart! Its those kind of clues that can help clinch the deal, on top of the quality of the piece. Then send the photo to one of the experts on Stuart such as Miles, Barratt, and GOOD LUCK !


Monday, July 11, 2011

Insight into the designation of the word 'merchant'; "Samuel Meeker, of Philadelphia, Merch't."

From the Pennsylvania Gazette 28 Oct. 1797, (see the front page of the paper below)**Click to enlarge, and view all the interesting articles that Meeker, Deman, & Co. sold!

When Samuel Meeker’s marriage was announced in the local press, he was called a Merchant: "1792 Mar. 3 - Samuel Meeker, of Philadelphia, Merch't., to Jane daughter of Jonathan Hampton, Esq. of Elizabeth Town." Today, the word merchant would mean ‘businessman’, or ‘financier’, in fact, nothing special. But at the turn of the century, and certainly in earlier times, the term merchant was a title that signified something to be proud of, it signaled reputation. “At a remove of two centuries this may appear somewhat prosaic, but in colonial America, where most people made a living by toil, the station of the merchant was something quite rarefied. They lived by their wits, but more than that, they lived by their character: partners and investors had to rely on a merchant’s word as his bond; finanical arrangements rested on individual credit, established through a past record for fair dealing. It was presumed that these assets flowed from a scrupulous sense of personal integrity....” "Robert Morris – Financier of the American Revolution" by C. Rappleye.p25

The world of the merchant at this time, saturated with wartime uncertainties and with minimal means to achieve even a reasonable level of communication, was filled with tremendous risk; fortunes were made and lost overnight. To survive in such a world, an individual had to be smart, capable, and trustworthy; he could be counted on in difficult times. I think these qualities can be seen in Samuel Meeker's portrait.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Deciphering a portrait’s message: Elizabeth Willing Powel

Elizabeth Willing was the sister of Thomas Willing, father of Anne Willing, featured in the last two posts (click here, and here, for the posts or scroll down). Elizabeth, after a few failed romances (rumor linked her John Dickinson the celebrated author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania) settled on Samuel Powel whose grandfather was known as the “rich carpenter”—this ‘rich carpenter’ had prospered from the combination of his trade as carpenter, his investment in real estate, and a stratgic marriage to a Quakeress.

Elizabeth Willing married Samuel Powel in 1769. She lost two sons soon after birth, remained childless, and was widowed for thirty-six years.

Using intuition, common sense and scholarly research, David Maxey has written a delightful ‘who dunnit’ mystery to unlock the secrets on the origins of a portrait of Elizabeth. What do the symbols mean in the portrait, why is she dressed the way she is (no jewels, simple dress without stay), when and why was the portrait commisssioned and who painted it? What happened to it with the passage of time?

All of this is answered admirably by David Maxey in
“A Portrait of ELIZABETH WILLING POWEL 1743-1830
American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 2006

To all of you, my readers, I highly recommend this delightful booklet on Elizabeth Willing Powel, and the deciphering of her Portrait. Hint: the portrait was NOT done by Gilbert Stuart.

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