Sooner or later I will write about portraiture. But for now, I am happy with writing about just one auction record.
How many of us have passed those 19th century eerie-looking portraiture in big antique malls, without a second look? Back in the 18th century or early 19th century, almost all painters started their careers by painting faces, even for prominent artists. In a catalog published by the National Gallery of Art in 1970 – “American Paintings and Sculpture: an Illustrated Catalogue” – portraiture dominated the collection even for painters who are more known today in other types such as Asher Durand (two Durand’s portraiture at that time without a landscape) and William Sidney Mount. Of course, this catalog was published before the rise of Hudson River School and American impressionism, yet it more or less reflected the focus of prominent American art collectors in the first half of the 20th century.
Now we know early American portraiture has fallen out of fashion because once a portraiture is sold out of the sitter’s family, it loses the sentimental value and thus becomes yet another stern-looking head on the wall. (Rarely was early portraiture signed.) For most collectors, portraiture lacks the kind of “narrative playfulness” of the genre paintings or the direct visual pleasure of landscapes. Lastly, critics tend to regard the skills of painting likeness as draftsmanship, not necessarily as consummate artistic virtues.
However, a new wave of scholarly research and museum exhibitions may revive the portrait paintings and reverse the trends (hopefully). The opening of the exhibition “New York Painting Begins: Eighteenth-Century Portraits” at the New York Historical Society, the touring exhibition from the Met “Faces of A New Nation”, now at the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate and its conference on early American portraiture in conjunction with the exhibition and the Delaware Antiques Show, indicates clearly at least curators and art historians still study them and finds both aesthetic and historical values from these faces even if collectors don’t buy.
Identity of sitters and/or painters, provenance, the interior/outdoor settings and the clothing & accessory (is there a kitten or a dog in it?), and perhaps (should I say in a shallow way) the attractiveness of the sitter all matter with respect to academic or market values. But for buying, the simple question is do I like it or can I share a room with that 19th century old lady?
Not everyone may be able to afford or find a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, not perhaps a John Neagle or Samuel Morse. But you don’t have to be Bill Gates to own a portrait by some notable prolific portrait painters. In the past, I have seen paintings by Thomas Sully, Chester Harding, Seymour Joseph Guy were sold or for sale at attractive prices. Yesterday, at Leland Little auction, a painting by Henry Inman was for sale and caught my attention.
Henry Inman, a protégé of John Wesley Jarvis, opened a studio of his own on Vesey Street in 1822, when portrait painting was finally raised above mere craftsmanship. One of his paintings of Janet Halleck Drake, is now at the exhibition “Faces of A New Nation” at Winterthur. In the New York Historical Society, a quick search shows a great number of his portraits are in the collection, mostly related to New York prominent dignitaries such merchants and politicians. In some way, Inman, because of his fame as a portrait painter, used his brush, to define a Who-is-who in New York of 1820’s and 1830’s dictionary.
This particular picture features a handsome young man – David Hoadley. According to the description, David Hoadley was born in 1774 and died in 1839. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, he was a self-taught architect responsible for some of his state’s finest early 19th century buildings. One of his most celebrated designs was the Judge William Bristol House, facing the New Haven Green (built between 1800-1802). Although the building was razed, the house’s doorway is preserved in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the picture, Inman seated David on a red chair with his left arm rest on a table. In the back, there is a grand Doric column, perhaps an indication of his profession as an architect. Inman was almost twenty years younger than David Hoadley. By the time this painting was completed, Mr. Hoadley was probably in the late 40’s. But Inman didn’t show any sign of age in this portraiture: With eyes looking forward yet not directly into viewers and with one arm rested, the other pulled in the air, he projected an image of a young man, reserved, sensitive, articulate and intelligent.
Not only are both the sitter and the painter identified and well-known in this portrait, but also it comes from prominent collectors: Jim Craig and Randy Johnson. Jim, trained as a classical violinist, yet always maintained a strong interest in the visual arts. In 1965, he published “The Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, 1699-1840“. A New York Times article once quoted one of his former customer’s comment — “Jim Craig knows where things are. He has never forgotten anything he’s seen in someone’s home.” Before 1985, Craig & Tarlton Inc. was a top antiques shop in Raleigh, N.C. After Mr. Tarlton’s retirement, Jim moved to Independence, VA and filled his mountain house with a formidable collection including traditional and contemporary paintings, pastels, works on paper, sculpture, antique stained glass, antique American and English furniture, silver, crystal and porcelains.
In 2007, Mint Museum of Art opened an exhibition “Personal Preferences — Paintings from the Jim Craig and Randy Johnson Collection“, featuring 67 out of more than 170 paintings in their collection. Among them was this painting by Henry Inman.
When the lot 160 came close, the auction house staff told me that there seemed to be a fierce competition ahead. It was both a surprise and perhaps expected to know the painting was sold for $4200 plus premium in the end, surpassing its high estimation of $3000. It is not just a face on the wall, it is a painting rich in history and ownership. And perhaps the new owner would soon take a trip to Orange, CT where the Orange Congregational Church, designed by David Hoadley still stands.