Folk Art Portrait Painting
The flutist and cellist had packed up their instruments and left. The platters of lamb meatballs, chicken pie, cornbread, and corn relish were bare. The unveiling party was over. With the parlor room now empty, I took a few minutes to enjoy the superb framed portrait of Harmanus Marshall. The "sitter" was 21 years old when he posed for William Jennys in 1798. A valid signature or firm attribution to a collected artist greatly enhances the value of old paintings. This nicely sized oil on canvas was not only signed, but the sitter was identified as well. Marshall was a handsome gentleman, unfrowning, dressed in tall-collared colonial jacket of apple green cloth. I liked the painting. It had good design and palette. The unusual color of the jacket-most are black or brown-brought a vitality to the work that "folk art" collector's prize.
Many traditional yardsticks for judging art must be set aside when one appraises a folk painting. The artists were often untrained itinerants who traveled from town to town, painting the well to-do for fees ranging from $1 to $30. With little or no classical training, or study in human anatomy, these artisans often painted pictures of people who today look flat or miss-shaped. Heads are commonly oversized. Fingers may resemble popsicle sticks. Sophisticated technique, realistic detail, and proper perspective is uncommon. Portraitists often worked in a hurry, painting only the top half of their subjects, spending most of their time on the face.
The hay-day of portrait art in American occurred from 1790 to 1840 when it was supplanted by the invention of the daguerreotype. Subjects were rendered in oils, watercolors, and chalk; on canvas, paper, board, ivory, and glass. Folk portraits are judged by their naive beauty and peripheral detail. Children are of more interest than adults. Children holding toys are valued higher than a tot holding nothing. Background is important. A two dollar commission would have purchased a hasty facial portrait with only a drape in the background. A prosperous sailor might well have paid extra so he could be seen in front of a window holding a fancy brass telescope. A Sea Captain could afford to have an image of his masted ship included in the background of his picture as well. Art that reveals information about our forebear's life, be it the mugs drank from, chairs they sat in, or ships they sailed, is of great interest.
Harmanus's portrait has no sailing ship in the distance, but it does include an almost unique green coat. It fits the hand-shaved paneled wall in its new home as if it painted to be hung there. Perhaps it was. On April 22, 1776, Harmanus Marshall was born in the very house to where his portrait has now come. The historic "Glebe House" in Woodbury, CT, was the colonial home of the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, Rev. John Rutgers Marshall-Harmanus's father. The museum acquired the painting at Christie's in New York, after David Dunton, a Woodbury antique dealer and member of the Glebe House's collection review committee, spotted it in an auction catalog. Event coordinator, Nancy Huebner of American Antiques and Interiors thanked Mr. Dunton and all the others who helped bring a son back home.
It was getting dark out. Mr. Dunton joined me to look at the picture. I congratulated him for his open-eye detective work. "This painting was meant for the Green Parlor," I said. "An extraordinary coincidence has taken place here."
"How is that?" he replied.
I pointed to the old paint on the walls. "The color is an exact match to the shade Harmanus's coat."