Important American Paintings - September 2010

This catalogue comprises a small but select group of important American portraits, landscape and marine views, still life subjects, and genre scenes. Ranging from 1766 to 1912, these paintings represent many different periods and styles of American art including neoclassicism, realism, romanticism, academicism, aestheticism, and folk art. Although many of their creators are well known to collectors and museum curators, we have chosen to include some exceptionally fine works by lesser known painters. As is appropriate for the gallery’s focus, the majority of the paintings pertain to the Philadelphia area, but we have also included subjects of a more wide ranging appeal.

First and foremost are Charles Willson Peale’s pendant portraits of the Baltimore silversmith turned entrepreneur Christopher Hughes and his wife and daughter. Painted in Baltimore in 1789, the paintings remain in their original frames that were reputedly made by the artist’s brother James Peale. To continue with the portrait category, James Peale is represented by his likeness of Sarah Smith Logan, daughter of a prosperous Maryland merchant. It was painted around 1808, when Peale was making the transition from being a miniaturist to a painter of standard size portraiture in oil. Another significant portrait is Benjamin West’s 1766 likeness of John Williams, painted shortly after the artist had completed his grand tour of the continent and settled in London. Nothing is known about the sitter, but his elegant Van Dyke costume suggests that he was a fashionable and wealthy young man. Philadelphia’s famous nineteenth-century society portraitist Thomas Sully is represented by his romantic 1832 portrait of Abby Ann King Turner, an accomplished young lady who became the second wife of the Episcopal minister Reverend Peter Van Pelt, Jr. Thomas Eakins’s portrait of John A. Thornton is a sympathetic image of a man who began his career in the meat and provisions business and ultimately became an influential member of Philadelphia’s Democratic political machine. We have also included a work by the lesser known portraitist Oliver Tarbell Eddy, a striking full-length portrait of a young girl that he probably painted in Newark, New Jersey, during the late 1830s.

The landscape category consists of a diverse trio of paintings that are arguably among their creators’ finest works. Painted in 1861, the German-born Johann Hermann Carmiencke’s Cedar Swamps, Cape May County, New Jersey, is of considerable local interest in that it shows the cedar mining industry in the swamps around Dennisville. Although Charles Austin Needham is largely forgotten today, around 1900 he was a prominent member of New York City’s art community who was noted for painting impressionist urban views that were often tinged with the gritty realism characteristic of the Ash Can School. Such is the case with his Park Snows, a snowy winter view of Madison Square Park for which the artist was awarded a bronze medal when it was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. The New Jersey artist Richard Blossom Farley’s panoramic Ocean City, New Jersey (1912) is topographically accurate yet redolent of the aestheticism that he had absorbed from James McNeill Whistler and the teachers under whom he had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For marine subjects we have a view of Labrador (1874) by William Bradford, the famous painter of Arctic scenes, and a very unusual work by Franklin Dullin Briscoe called Breezy (1884).

In the genre category we have a painting by the Alsatian artist Christian Schussele, who is primarily remembered for being Eakins’s teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The sentimental Getting Ready for School (1858) was exhibited at the Academy’s Thirty-Fifth Annual Exhibition in 1858. Mary Russell Smith’s barnyard scenes peopled by chicks were very popular in Philadelphia during the 1860s and 1870s; her Three Chicks with Flowers (c. 1867) is a fine example that retains its original frame. The expatriate Daniel Ridgway Knight’s A Flowery Path (Louise) (1895) is an exceptionally fine example of the subject in which he specialized, idealized young peasant girls posing in his garden in the countryside outside Paris. Although Knight was an academic painter, the loose treatment of the landscape and garden reflects his awareness of impressionism. Finally, Benjamin Ferris Gilman was a Philadelphia portraitist and still life painter who had studied in Paris. His A Connoisseur Fantasia (c. 1892) reflects the fin de siècle fascination with exotic Far Eastern culture.

Still life has always been one of the Schwarz Gallery’s specialties, so we have selected three works with special care. Still Life with Grapes and Mellon (1849) is one of the few known signed and dated paintings by John J. Eyers, possibly a German immigrant who worked in Philadelphia. The New Jersey painter Charles Spencer Humphreys was noted for his folk-style horseracing subjects, but his Still Life with French Porcelain and Strawberries (1862) is a rare still life by him that possesses unusual charm. The fact that Danish-born Emil Carlsen was regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest still life painter of his time is evidenced by his Still Life with a Brass Kettle and Shallots (1904), a work that reflects the influence of the eighteenth-century French still life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

—Robert W. Torchia, Ph.D.
August, 2010

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