Sunday, November 25, 2007

November 2007 - American additions

During November, there were more than usual American portrait miniatures offered for sale at a variety of public auctions. Some of the miniatures purchased by other collectors at those auctions are shown in previous posts at November 2007 - Interesting Items at Auction In addition Bonham's offered 26 American miniatures at their November sale. All the miniatures at Bonham's and the prices realised can currently be seen at online catalogue

Although the quantity available during November made deciding what to bid for more complicated, the large number of American miniatures on offer was of benefit, as it was possible to acquire five interesting miniatures at public auctions which were less high profile than those of Skinner's and Bonham's.

The first is regarded as an outstanding addition to the collection. Some of the various comments may be controversial, but I will genuinely welcome any authoritative comments or corrections emailed to me.

Several posts ago, I commented on four miniatures offered for auction with combined estimates of $140,000/$210,000 which were all attributed to Walter Robertson October 2007 - George Washington and market prices.. by saying "it is less surprising that none of the Robertson miniatures sold". Implicitly, this was a comment that I doubted the attributions to Walter Robertson. Having made that comment so recently, I did not expect to have to justify it so quickly.

Thus, it may be necessary to wear an inverted enamel basin on my head as protection from brickbats from the owners of the unsold Robsertons, when I attribute the first purchase as being painted by Walter Robertson (c1750-1801) during his brief time in the United States between 1793 and 1796!

In fact, several layers of inverted pudding basins may be necessary for protection from irate miniature scholars or curators, given my comments further below about other museum works currently attributed to Walter Robertson!!

In terms of pure painting skill, I feel this miniature by Walter Robertson of a lady with the initials "C V" is possibly the best pre 1800 American miniature by any artist who worked in the United States before that date. (However, conflicting opinions are very welcome! I am also happy to display images here of competing claimants to the title of "Miss America pre 1800").

In my opinion, from a quality point of view, it ranks with the miniature Walter Robertson painted of George Washington, now owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum, see GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON (1732 - 1799) and of which he painted at least five versions. Robert Field (c1769-1819) commented on the Washington portrait "Mr Robinson's (sic) miniature of the President is as good a likeness and as fine a piece of painting as I ever saw." Given Field's own high reputation as a miniature painter this was strong praise.

It is conceded market values for 18C miniatures by the Peales, Pelham, and Ramage may be higher than for Robertson, but their miniatures were smaller in size and in my opinion, not as skilfully painted.

Along with Archibald Robertson (no relation), Walter Robertson was probably the first artist to introduce the larger sized miniature to America. If Walter Robertson had remained longer in America and painted more miniatures, his reputation today would be much higher.

A full justification of the attribution to Walter Robertson can be seen at Robertson, Walter - portrait of a lady "C V" but in summary, the miniature is very similar to two miniatures by him included in "American Miniatures" by Harry Wehle and a further miniature in the Portrait Miniature Collection in the National Museum of American Art, see Mrs. Elizabeth Pollock Hartigan The case also gives the appearance of being American made.

In the fuller attribution, I also refer to another miniature within the Portrait Miniature Collection in the National Museum of American Art, attributed to Walter Robertson, which is described as Mrs. Philip John Schuyler (Catherine van Rensselaer) I confess a personal and somewhat nervous opinion, given the awesome reputation of the National Museum, that this seems an unlikely attribution. Walter Robertson was working in America from 1793 to 1796 and, other than works attributed to Walter Robertson, I have seen no references suggesting rectangular miniatures were painted in America at this time. The red leather case may not be original, but it does date from between 1810/1825 which seems a more likely date for the miniature and suggests the miniature was itself copied from an earlier large oil portrait.

There are other rectangular miniatures attributed to Walter Robertson, one is in the Metropolitan Museum, see Walter Robertson: Abigail Willing (68.222.13) | Object Page ... Although I am an amateur collector, I have the same reservation about that attribution, again despite the equally awesome reputation of the Metropolitan. The rectangular format and red leather case to me are signs of a miniature copied between 1810/1825, well after Robertson's death.

I think the reason for the "numerous" attributions of miniatures to Walter Robertson is partly the result of a slip up by Harry Wehle. As outlined below "several" became "numerous", which has been latched onto and has led to incorrect attributions.

William Dunlap (1766-1839) made two one-line comments about Robertson making copies of portraits by Gilbert Stuart, one of which reads; "His copies from Stuart's oil portraits pleased very much" and in a note on bottom of the same page; "He painted a miniature of Washington and copied several portraits by Stuart" (see page 118 of History of the Arts of Design).

The comments by Dunlap do not even confirm Robertson's copies were miniatures. Thus they may have been large oil copies. However, if the copies were miniatures, in my opinion it is more likely Robertson painted such miniatures in an oval format suitable for framing and wearing, as was fashionable at the time, rather than rectangular.

Rectangular miniatures were uncommon, if not rare, in Britain before 1810/1815. It seems unlikely Walter Robertson would have used that technique 15/20 years earlier in America.

Harry Wehle himself observed in 1927, "As for Robertson's numerous (sic) copies after Stuart's portraits, of which Dunlap wrote, none have thus far come to light." (NB Dunlap used the word "several", not "numerous" in his one-line comment.)

I should stress there is nothing personal in my doubts about the Robertson attributions. Apart from anything else, I feel sure I have many more doubtful attributions in this collection than the museums concerned have within their collections!

(Since writing the above, I have had a very kind email from a miniatures scholar, supporting the above views on what might be called RRR; "wRong Rectangular Robertsons".)

Perhaps a little less controversially and also less confidently, the second miniature was attributed to Jean-Francois Vallee (c1755-1826). However, the same scholar doubts this, although the style is of an artist trained in France and there were few French artists working in America around 1800. There are two other miniatures in the collection of American ladies wearing similar bonnets, which helps to source it as painted in America, as does the nature of the locket case. Thus any other thoughts on the artist are welcome.

Pierre Henri was discounted as a second choice for this miniature of a lady, as he tended to paint the heads of his sitters larger and higher on the ivory. For more detail on the reasons for the attribution, see Vallee, Jean-Francois - portrait of a lady

The third miniature of a man has been attributed to Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835). His miniatures are said to be rare.

The style of this miniature is so close to the one by Tisdale of James Fowle Baldwin which is in the Manney Collection (fig 240), that an attribution to Tisdale seems quite reasonable and so there is some confidence in the attribution.

Tisdale is famous as the cartoonist who first depicted the mythical creature called a "gerrymander".

There is a picture of the cartoon, as well as more on the attribution and the painting style of Tisdale at Tisdale, Elkanah - portrait of a man

Less confidence attaches to the attribution of the fourth miniature to Hugh Bridport (1794->1870).

This is of a young lady with a hairstyle showing several ringlets on both sides and crossed over the top of her head, which was fashionable around 1845.

This appears to have been painted by an artist trained as an engraver, but the quality is not as good as some later works by Bridport. It may even be a copy of his work.

For more about the miniature and Hugh Bridport, see Bridport, Hugh - portrait of a young lady There is also another miniature in the collection which has been attributed more confidently to Hugh Bridport, see Bridport, Hugh - portrait of a man

The last miniature in this group is also unsigned, but it has not been possible to attribute it to an artist.

As it is painted on porcelain, it almost certain it was painted in Germany in the late 19C, probably from a photograph sent to Germany for a painted copy to be made. It may even be on a very faint photographic base.

The miniature has been classified as American due to the United Sates Army uniform the sitter is wearing. It is the Senior Officer's Dress Frock Coat in the style introduced in 1872 and modified in 1879. The uniform was worn by officers ranked from major to colonel.

Painted miniatures of United States Army officers in uniform are uncommon and hence it is still an interesting portrait, even if dating from the late 19C. For more, see Unknown - portrait of United States Army officer

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