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A Winterthur Primer: Acquiring and Researching Portraits by Anne Verplanck
A Winterthur Primer: Acquiring and Researching Portraits by Anne Verplanck
by Anne Verplanck

A Winterthur Primer: Acquiring and Researching Portraits by Anne Verplanck
Fig. 1: Winthrop Chandler (1747-1790), General Samuel McClelland (1730-1807), Woodstock, Connecticut, circa 1776. A companion portrait of his wife, Rachel Abbe McClelland, is not shown. Oil on canvas, 51-3/8 x 46-1/4 inches. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum; gift of the Michael Miller family. 2004.67.1.

American portraiture from the 1700s and 1800s is a ripe area for study and collecting. Over the last two decades scholars have undertaken important research that builds on over a century of interest in American art. I encourage you to look intently at portraits, whether in a museum, in your home, or at an antiques show. The more you look, the better equipped you will be to discern the work of one artist from another and recognize regional variations in how people wanted to be remembered by future generations.

When acquiring a portrait, there are a number of questions to consider. Are you interested in famous sitters, particularly those by well-known artists? Or are you drawn to lesser known, or even unidentified, sitters who might be ancestors, people of local importance, or simply aesthetically pleasing in appearance? Does a portrait like Samuel McClellan (Fig. 1), a merchant and important figure in Connecticut history, appeal to you? McClellan represents one of the finest examples of artist Winthrop Chandler's work because it depicts a significant sitter, provides visual appeal through the varied use of color, and employs a large amount of detail and individualization of the sitter's clothing and accessories.

A Winterthur Primer: Acquiring and Researching Portraits by Anne Verplanck
Fig. 2: Benjamin West (1738-1820), attributed, Grace Peel (Parr) (about 1740-1814), probably Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, circa 1757-1758. Oil on canvas, 45-1/4 x 36-1/4 inches. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum; Museum purchase with funds provided by Collectors Circle. 2003.63.

This brings us to the subject of identifying artists. Though relatively few eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century portraits are signed, familiarity with certain attributes can help distinguish one artist's work from another. Attention should be paid to how the artist has positioned the sitter and if the figure takes up the whole canvas. How the artist treats facial features, particularly the eyes and mouth, and the hands are also good indicators of who the painter was, as are brushstrokes and whether they are precise or fluid.

My preferred method of inquiry is to pretend that none of the assumptions about the sitter or artist are true; I then build the case from scratch. For purposes of comparison, look at paintings that are documented by signatures or are substantiated by period references such as wills, inventories, or letters. An attribution based on a painting that is not signed or otherwise documented is virtually meaningless. Caution should also be used when making attributions from photographs, since it often cannot be determined if conservation or restoration may have altered the appearance of the works. To assist in your research, many museums and some galleries have published comprehensive publications on either specific artists or collections; some of these are available on line. The sources listed in the sidebar also provide information on works of art.

Another point to consider when assessing a portrait is whether the artist and sitter "match up" in terms of life dates and the locations in which they lived, worked, and visited. Identities of sitters sometimes become mistaken over time. Returning to family genealogies may help ascertain whether the sitter could be a member of an earlier or later generation. Such research proved fruitful in identifying Grace Peel as the probable sitter in Benjamin West's painting (Fig. 2), one of the few portraits painted by West before he left for England in 1760. A descendant's genealogical research concluded that Grace Peel was the sitter, as her age and location more closely corresponded to the image in the portrait and West's whereabouts than the sitter traditionally identified by the family. That West also painted Peel's sister further substantiated the likelihood that Grace Peel was the sitter.

A Winterthur Primer: Acquiring and Researching Portraits by Anne Verplanck
Fig. 3: Ralph Earl (1791-1801), Jerusha Benedict (Ives) (1772-1795), probably Danbury, Connecticut, 1793. 38 x 32-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum; bequest of Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland. 2001.49.

Visual clues can help date portraits. Some artists' styles changed dramatically over time. Costume, too, varied with time and place. One general guideline is that most men were depicted in white stocks (neckware) prior to 1830 and black stocks after that year and for much of the nineteenth century. There are many good resources on costume (see sidebar), but keep in mind that people varied in their willingness and ability to embrace new fashion, perhaps clinging to older styles because of age, location, or preference. Therefore it is best to use several indices for dating portraits in addition to costume.

The condition of a painting should also be part of your criteria when acquiring a painting. One can see a lot simply by close inspection and by looking at the painting in raking light (from an angle). An ultraviolet, or "black light," will often make apparent some of the evidence of alterations to a painting's surface. Be sure to inquire about what conservation or restoration treatment the painting has received, by whom, and whether written and photographic documentation of the work exists. Though the American Institute of Conservation's code of ethics recommends that its members provide this documentation, there are many individuals who practice restoration or conservation without adhering to this professional organization's standards.

Some of the most appealing acquisitions, whether for a private owner or a museum, are of known sitters who are painted by identified artists, and are in fine condition. The strong visual appeal of a portrait like that of Jerusha Benedict (Fig. 3), for example, is reinforced by Ralph Earl's inclusion of fine fabric, an array of hair ornaments, and a landscape setting. Both the artist and the sitter are known and this is one of Earl's more complex, detailed portraits. The portrait visually documents Benedict's knowledge of and access to fashionable goods, her participation in trans-Atlantic genteel activities, and helps future generations remember her as a young woman on the verge of marriage. Like the portraits of the McClellands, the portrait is an outstanding example of the artist's work and can help us better understand American history and culture.


Kirsch, Andrea and Rustin Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

Rebiero, Aileen. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

Saunders, Richard and Ellen Miles. American Colonial Portraiture, 1770-1776 (Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery, 1987).

Severa, Joan. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995).

For online information about family ancestries and inventories of American paintings and portraits, visit the following websites:
Catalog of American Portraits: www.npg.si.edu/research/research1.htm;
Inventory of American Paintings: www.siris.si.edu;
Union List of Artist Names: getty.edu/research/conducting_research/vocabularies/ulan;
Worcester Art Museum: worcesterart.org/Collection/Early_American

For the code of ethics governing conservation of art and names of conservators visit American Institute for Conservation at aic.stanford.edu.

Anne Verplanck is interim director of museum collections and curator of prints and paintings at Winterthur Museum, and Country Estate, Winterthur, Delaware.

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