Attributed to Bass Otis
Caspar Wistar, M.D.
, c. 1816
Oil on canvas, 30 × 25 inches
Provenance: Dr. William Shippen; his son Dr. Edward Shippen; his son Dr. Lloyd P. Shippen; his widow Florence H. B. Shippen; sold by Richard M. Fielding to the Mutual Assurance Company, May 22, 1934.
Exhibited: Wistar Association, Philadelphia Club, April 17, 1945.
References: Garvan and Wojtowicz 1977, 57–58, color pl.
In 1912 the Mutual Assurance Company relocated its offices to a large, four-story corner house at 240 South Fourth Street that had formerly been occupied by one of Philadelphia’s most eminent physicians, Dr. Caspar Wistar (1761–1818). Wistar had purchased the house from his colleague Dr. William Shippen, Jr., in 1801, and had held weekly salons there that were attended by Philadelphia’s intelligentsia and distinguished visitors to the city, many of whom were members of the American Philosophical Society. Called “Wistar parties,” these informal meetings were so popular that they continued after Wistar’s death. After a lapse during and directly after the Civil War, the gatherings were revived in 1886 under the auspices of the Wistar Association. Because of these rich historical associations, the trustees of the Mutual Assurance Company felt that Bass Otis’s portrait of Wistar was “a desirable acquisition for us to own” when it was offered to them in 1934 by Richard M. Fielding, son of the art historian Mantle Fielding.
Wistar, the son of a Quaker glass manufacturer, was named after his grandfather who had been born near Heidelberg in Germany. His experience working as a volunteer nurse at the Battle of Germantown during the American Revolution in 1777 led him to become a medical doctor. Wistar earned a bachelor of medicine degree from the medical department of the University of the State of Pennsylvania in 1782, and received a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1786.
Wistar returned to Philadelphia in 1787 and established a private practice. He was elected to the College of Physicians, was appointed a staff physician to the Philadelphia Dispensary, and elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. He succeeded Thomas Jefferson as president of the society in 1815. He was professor of chemistry at the medical school of the College of Philadelphia (renamed the University of Pennsylvania in 1791) in 1789, and was adjunct professor of anatomy, midwifery, and surgery there from 1792 until 1808. In that year he succeeded Dr. William Shippen, Jr., as professor of anatomy, a position that he held until 1818. Wistar joined the staff of Pennsylvania Hospital in 1793, and treated patients in that year’s severe yellow fever epidemic. He wrote the first American textbook on anatomy, a two-volume work entitled A System of Anatomy for the Use of Students of Medicine (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson; Fry & Kammerer, 1811, 1814). His private collection of anatomical specimens formed the basis of the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania that was founded by his great-nephew in 1892. Wistar was also a member of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the Humane Society, and the Society for Circulating the Benefit of Vaccination. He was interested in botany, and his friend Thomas Nuttall named the plant genus Wisteria after him in 1818.
The artist and inventor Bass Otis was born in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the son of a physician. He completed an apprenticeship as a scythe-maker and relocated to New York City around 1812, where he is thought to have worked in the studio of the noted portraitist John Wesley Jarvis (1781–1840). Otis moved to Philadelphia in 1812, joined the Society of Artists of the United States, and began to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He patented a device to aid artists, called the perspective protractor, in 1815. Otis was primarily a portraitist, but he also designed flags, engraved handbills, decorated coaches, painted advertising signs, and is credited with having been the first American lithographer. He was a member of the Franklin Institute of Science, and was elected an academician of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1824. Although Otis was active in several East Coast cities after 1837, he often returned to Philadelphia to paint portraits, and he died there at the age of seventy-seven.
There are at least three known portraits of Wistar by Otis, all of which descended through the sitter’s family. In addition to the Mutual Assurance Company’s portrait, one is owned by Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia and the other is said to remain in the family’s possession. The order in which the portraits were painted is unclear. Otis exhibited what was presumably his first portrait of Wistar at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1817. It was one among twenty-four portraits of famous Americans that the Philadelphia publisher Joseph Delaplaine had commissioned the previous year to serve as the basis of engraved illustrations for the three-volume Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters. This is the only portrait of Wistar that Otis recorded in his account book, where it is listed among all the other portraits that Delaplaine had commissioned from him.1
John B. Neagle (c. 1796–1866) engraved Otis’s portrait of Wistar around 1817 or 1818 for the Repository, but it was never published because the venture failed.2 The engraving shows Wistar in half-length, seated in an upholstered chair before a table. He holds a letter in his left hand, and his right arm lies extended across the table in front of two books that stand upright in the lower left background, one of which bears the title Bell’s Anatomy.
Both the Pennsylvania Hospital and Mutual Assurance Company versions are smaller and less complex, showing only Wistar’s head and upper torso; there are no accessories in the former, and a single book is placed at the lower left of the latter. In their exhibition catalogue on Otis, Gainor B. Davis and Wayne Craven implied that the Pennsylvania Hospital version was the original.3 Robert G. Stewart had already tentatively drawn this conclusion in the context of his discussion of James Barton Longacre’s (1794–1869) engraving after the portrait that was published in the second volume of James Herring’s four-volume National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans (Philadelphia, 1835).4 Charles Goodman (1796–1835) and Robert Piggot (1795–1887) produced an engraving of what resembles the Pennsylvania Hospital version in 1818, which they identified it as being “from the original picture in the possession of Mrs. Wistar.”5 Although it is reasonable to conclude that the larger and more complex portrait in Neagle’s engraving represents Otis’s first portrait of Wistar, there are compelling reasons to believe that the Pennsylvania Hospital version was the original.
According to Shippen family tradition, Dr. William Shippen, Jr., acquired the Mutual Assurance Company’s painting after he and Wistar agreed to exchange portraits. Garvan and Wojtowicz doubted this provenance. They discovered that the 1818 inventory of Wistar’s estate listed a portrait of Dr. William Shippen, Jr., but they failed to find any evidence to confirm that Shippen possessed a portrait of Wistar. Moreover, they considered it unlikely that Otis, who did not move to Philadelphia until 1812, had painted a portrait of Shippen, who died in 1808. These inconsistencies led Garvan and Wojtowicz to suspect that Wistar may have instead exchanged portraits with Shippen’s son Dr. William Shippen (1792–1867), who had studied anatomy under him at the University of Pennsylvania.
Although it is not yet possible to conclusively determine which among Otis’s surviving portraits of Wistar was the original, there is no doubt that it became the standard likeness of the famous physician. Copies of it and its variants were sought by Philadelphia institutions. Wistar’s widow allowed Thomas Sully to make a replica of one of the portraits for the American Philosophical Society in 1830.6 Copies by Samuel Bell Waugh (1814–1885) are in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (undated)7 and the University of Pennsylvania (1855).8
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