For Teachers  
  Learning Objectives  
  Assessment Questions  
  Background  
  What is Portraiture?  
  The Context-18th and 19th Century America  
American Portraiture of the 18th and 19th Centuries
  Specifics  
  The Artists  
  19th Century Painters of 'High' Society  
  Itinerant Painters & a History Mystery
  Family Portraits
  Interact  
  Glossary  
  Think, Look & Compare Questions  
  Activities by Grade Level  
  Elementary  
  Middle School  
  High School
 


Specifics
Itinerant Painters & A History Mystery

Samuel Miller
William Jennys
Ammi Phillips
Unknown

Some portrait painters’ lives remain a mystery, though their works still survive. Samuel Miller, (American c. 1807-1853) painted an image of Emily Moulton (1852). (We know some details about Emily, the sitter, because the painting remained in her family until it came to the Currier.) An inscription on the back of the painting reads: "Painted in 1852 by Mr. Miller who lived on the south corner of Pearl and Bartlett Streets, Charlestown, Mass., USA". Records from 1852 list Samuel Miller as a portrait painter living in Charlestown, but beyond that there was no trace of him. Thus, it was assumed that Miller was an itinerant painter who never stayed anywhere long enough to be documented and perhaps died young. However, a Boston historian has discovered Miller’s death certificate showing that the artist was born in Boston around 1806 and died in Charlestown in 1853. He appears to have specialized in full-length portraits of children, often shown with pets and flowers, similar to folk painting, with the use of flat areas of bright color with a tendency toward simplification. Moreover, a number of works attributed to Miller because of their stylistic similarities to Emily Moulton, can now be dated with some accuracy. One point remains puzzling…if this is Emily, as family tradition maintained, she would have been 18 when Miller painted this portrait. Does she look 18 to you? Clearly the sitter here is younger than eighteen, raising several questions: Whether the portrait in fact represents one of the younger Moulton daughters, whether it depicts someone else entirely, or whether the work could be a copy of an earlier image of Emily.

Itinerant painters did not have the training or the established following that portrait artists in larger cities enjoyed. Some learned the trade as apprentices; others were self-taught and copied the conventions of portraiture from engravings of European portraits. Most itinerant painters had little training or were self-taught. They relied on native ability and the skills they had acquired as sign, house or coach painters to depict what they saw. Despite their lack of formal training, they often captured the essence of the sitter’s personality.

William Jennys was one of the many itinerant painters who traveled throughout New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seeking commissions in smaller towns and rural areas. Two works attributed to him, Portrait of a Man c. 1802-1805 and Portrait of a Woman, c. 1802-1805, contain bare backgrounds, a minimum of costume detail, yet broadly modeled faces, strongly suggesting the style of Jennys. The couple’s features are blunt, their hair is not especially neat or ‘done’ and both are dressed in clothing of good quality, but slightly out of fashion, suggesting that they lived close to, but not in, an urban center at the turn of the 19th century.

to top

Ammi Phillips (1786-1865) received commissions from clients throughout New England. Although his works show little indication that he was formally trained, his ability to convey character and his eye for essential detail are qualities that today’s viewers admire. Phillips was a Connecticut-born portrait painter who traveled extensively throughout Western Connecticut and Massachusetts and along the Hudson River in New York State during his more than fifty-year career. Phillips painted portraits of Abraham Sleight and Ruth Roe Sleight in the early 1820s. They, like many of their neighbors were willing to pay Phillips not inconsiderable charge of twenty dollars per pair to be commemorated in a style that was the height of fashion among rural New Yorkers. Both are dressed soberly in black and white for their portraits and the backdrop is gray and austere. Reflecting the style of the times, their plain clothing is enlivened by detail in the patterned lace of her cap, and the row of buttons on his waistcoat. They are shown at waist length (a format that by about 1820 had come to be preferred to the old-fashioned three-quarter length view.) The Sleights were a well-established family in Dutchess County, New York and Phillips was the most prolific artist living in Dutchess County at that time. Although the paintings are unsigned, the handling of flesh tones and lace is nearly identical to that in other portraits signed by Phillips. Just as Copley dominated portrait painting in urban New England in the 1760s, Phillips became the painter to the well to do of rural Dutchess County.

Many artists are still completely unknown, as is the case of the Portrait of Daniel Webster, c. 1850. The portrait shows Webster with dark features and a commanding stature, depicting him as a decisive and fiery individual. Webster was a distinguished lawyer, orator, and statesman, born in Salisbury, NH in 1782. He was known as his era’s foremost advocate of American nationalism. Webster served in the U.S. House of Representatives from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, as a member of Congress from Massachusetts, as well as Secretary of State under three Presidents. In 1850, around the time his portrait was completed, Webster delivered a speech in the Senate supporting Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 including the Fugitive Slave Law, angering many New England abolitionists. Webster was also portrayed in 3-dimensions, as a sculpture of him was completed by Thomas Ball (American 1819-1911). Sculpture represents yet another form of portraiture, this one capturing a full-body image of Webster completed in bronze. A large-sized monument of the sculpture stands on the grounds of the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord, as well as in Central Park in New York City.

In some instances, more is known about the sitter in a portrait than the artist. Farmer and tavern keeper Levi Jones, born in Maine to a family with roots in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, served for a number of years as town clerk of nearby Milton and then became Representative to the General Court, the legislative body of New Hampshire. He may have commissioned this portrait (Levi Jones of Union, NH) (c. 1825) to commemorate his rise to office. Jones was a landowner in Milton and also kept a tavern on the main road from Portsmouth to Wolfeboro. The sign for his tavern still survives in the Currier’s collections, showing the date 1810 and the Masonic emblems of keys, square and compass. The bust-length portrait of Jones was painted in watercolor in a three-quarter-view format. The facial features including the nose, shown in profile, are delineated with a single stroke of paint, and the hair with feathery strokes, are characteristic of a group of portraits attributed to "Mr. Willson." "Mr. Willson," appears to have been active in the 1820s. He is believed to be from southern New Hampshire, where this and several other portraits were found.

to top

 

 

 


Samuel Miller, Emily Moulton, 1852
Samuel Miller, Emily Moulton, 1852
View zoomable image >

William Jennys, Portrait of a Man, circa 1802-1805
William Jennys, Portrait of a Man, c. 1802-1805
View zoomable image >

William Jennys, Portrait of a Woman, circa 1802-1805
William Jennys, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1802-1805
View zoomable image >

Ammi Phillips, Abraham Sleight, 1823-1825
Ammi Phillips, Abraham Sleight, 1823-1825
View zoomable image >

Ammi Phillips, Ruth Roe Sleight, 1823-1825
Ammi Phillips, Ruth Roe Sleight, 1823-1825
View zoomable image >

Unknown, Daniel Webster, circa 1850
Unknown, Daniel Webster,
c. 1850
View zoomable image >

Thomas Ball, Daniel Webster, 1853
Thomas Ball, Daniel Webster, 1853
View zoomable image >

Mr. Willson, Levi Jones (of Union, NH), circa 1825
Mr. Willson, Levi Jones (of Union, NH), c. 1825
View zoomable image >


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  © Copyright 2005, Currier Museum of Art. All text and images on this site are protected by copyright. Site credits >>