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...Seven Holes: The Story of a Serendipitous Find ÿby John Herdeg
The Story of a Serendipitous Find

by John Herdeg

Abraham Delanoy (1742-1795), portrait of John Sherman, Jr., New Haven, Ct. Oil on canvas. The image was taken during conservation.

"It's beguiling, it may be American, and it may even be eighteenth century." My wife, Judy, made these comments a number of years ago. She was referring to a portrait of a young man that she saw hanging on a wall in an antiques shop in Woodbury, Connecticut. She was correct in her assessment, but I pointed out that the painting had seven holes. One was nearly three inches across, while others were the size of half-dollars, quarters, nickels, and dimes. We walked on. Reason had prevailed.

The next year we again visited the same shop. When we entered the back room, Judy spied the painting of the young man. Her words were nearly the same: "It's beguiling, may be American, and it may even be eighteenth century!" She was right, but I repeated, "But it has seven holes!"

I thought reason had prevailed again, but Judy would not walk past the painting this time. I tried once again to inject reason, suggesting we get an evaluation from a painting conservator. She agreed and we engaged someone to examine the painting. When he called with his report, his words were (almost verbatim), "It's beguiling, may be American, and may even be eighteenth century. But it has seven holes." Unfortunately, he then added the words, "It can be conserved." Reason was now swept aside and we bought the painting.

It really was in grim condition: it was dirty; the canvas sagged; the holes were numerous and large; and the painting was criss-crossed with abrasions. We took the painting to Julius Lowy Frame & Restoration Company in New York City and they told us they would do the best they could. Many months later they called and we went to pick up the painting. It was now a most handsome portrait of a young man in a rich blue jacket with large gold buttons. It was wonderful! They had done extraordinary work. They cleaned it, replaced the back canvas, stretched both canvases, filled the holes in the original, texturized the patches, and repainted the patches and abrasions. In both direct and raking light the canvas looked new and untouched. It was, indeed, a most beguiling and appealing portrait.

The night after we brought the painting home, I looked through the stack of photographs Lowy had provided. Some were taken before conservation, some during, and some after. Some were in normal light and some in raking light. I had never seen so many photographs! I came to an apparently blank photograph and then realized it was the back of the original canvas. As I looked more closely I noticed some writing. I asked Judy, "What does 'pinxit' mean?" She responded that she thought it was an eighteenth-century term for "painter." Then I asked, "Who is A. Delanoy?" The name was painted on the canvas next to "pinxit."

Judy and I immediately went to our library. We found a report from a conference on colonial painting that Winterthur had hosted a number of years before and yes, there was reference to an Abraham Delanoy.1 He had been born in New York City in 1742 and was "[o]ne of the most promising of the young native-born painters of the period."2 He studied under Benjamin West in London from 1765 to 1766, and painted "an exquisite and sensitive portrait" of West that is at The New-York Historical Society.3

In 1767, Delanoy returned to New York and painted numerous portraits including those of several members of the Beekman family, now also at The New-York Historical Society. In 1768 he went to the West Indies and evidently returned by 1771 when he painted members of the Livingston and Stuyvesant families in New York. He then seems to have disappeared for a number of years, reappearing in the mid-1780s in the New Haven, Connecticut, area.4 There was a footnote in the Winterthur conference report that referred to an article on Delanoy portraits in New Haven, Connecticut, written by Susan Sawitzky in The New-York Historical Society Quarterly (April 1957).5

Delanoy's portrait of John Sherman, Jr., after conservation.

The next morning we drove to Winterthur and found the article. Indeed, it featured the same painting of our young man, with all of its holes. The sitter was identified as John Sherman, Jr., grandson of Roger Sherman, one of the most important colonial leaders and the "only member of the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federal Constitution."6

We looked at the photograph in the article of the back of the canvas and observed the inscriptions: "Roger Sherman Aged 14 years," "Apr. 19, 1735" and "A.Delanoy Pinxit." The inscriptions were confusing because the name was different than Mrs. Sawitzky had identified, and the young man's clothing dated from the 1780s and not the 1730s. In closely examining the photograph though, Mrs. Sawitzky observed that the name and age of the subject and the signature of the artist appeared to be fundamentally genuine, though somewhat altered. Indeed, "Roger" was clearly a later alteration. She also concluded that the chronologically inappropriate date was "unquestionably the unaided contribution of a later hand."7

In researching the Sherman family, Mrs. Sawitzky identified the sitter, not as Roger Sherman, but as John Sherman, Jr., the oldest son of Captain John Sherman, Roger's oldest son. Captain Sherman had married Rebecca Austin in 1771 in New Haven. John, Jr., was born in 1772 and would have been "aged 14" in 1786, a date that corresponds to the attire worn in the portrait.8 Abraham Delanoy was in New Haven at this time.

While only our portrait is signed, Mrs. Sawitzky attributed the other portraits of the family, namely Captain John, his wife Rebecca holding a son (probably Henry), their daughter Maria, and son David, also to Delanoy. Subsequently, Nina Fletcher Little and Christine Skeeles Schloss reaffirmed the attribution in their respective exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Colonial Williamsburg.9

Today, the portraits of Captain John, Rebecca, Maria, and David are believed to be in a private collection. Presumably the three other children in the family, Harriett, Elizabeth, and Charles, were also painted, but their whereabouts are unknown.10

As for our portrait of John Sherman, Jr., it is a wonderful addition to our collection. And, yes, it is beguiling, American, and eighteenth century.

This article is based on an article scheduled to be published in The Walpole Society Note Book, and is being published with permission from the Walpole Society.

John Herdeg is a collector and scholar.

1. Ian M. G. Quimby, ed., American Painting to 1776: A Reappraisal (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1971): 280-81.
2. Ibid, 280.
3. Ibid, 280.
4. Ibid, 281.
5. Susan Sawitzky, "Abraham Delanoy in New Haven," The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 41 (April 1957), 193-206.
6. "Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress," (http://gioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=5000349)
7. "Abraham Delanoy," 194.
8. Roy V. Sherman, The New England Shermans (1974), 138, 141.
9. "Abraham Delanoy," 193-206; Christine Skeeles Schloss, The Beardsley Limner and Some Contemporaries (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1972); Nina Fletcher Little, New England Provincial Artsits, 1775-1800 (Boston, Mass: Museum of Fine Arts, 1976).
10. The New England Shermans, 141.

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