William Jennys and his father Richard were two of our country’s earliest portraitists. They are known for their skillful depictions of the faces of their early New England sitters. William, especially, had the ability to portray the soul and character of his sitters on a canvas.
This portrait depicts a woman of strong character is surely one of William Jennys more accomplished pieces. She gazes directly at the viewer with her hazel eyes. Her face is strongly modeled—not quite as exaggerated as some of William’s work but beautifully done with rose, yellow, grey and brown tones providing shading and strong highlights. Neither William nor his father Richard were artists who flattered their sitters and their sitters do not appear to be the type of people who wanted to be flattered. William shows this woman as she must have been—upper lip protruding just slightly over her lower lip and the suggestion of a mole above her eyebrow. Her face is strong but kind.
William did an excellent job of showing the lustrous quality of the blue fabric of the sitter’s dress. The bodice of her dress is loose, gathered at the empire waistline just below her bust and has tight sleeves. The neckline of her dress is likely low cut but she covers it with a lace-trimmed fichu. On her head, she wears the most glorious tall mobcap made of gauze with white embroidery, a large lace trimmed double-ruffle and tied with a big white silk bow in the front. This tall mobcap must have been extremely popular in the areas that both Jennys worked because it shows up in several of both of their works. William was particularly good at depicting the bonnet with all the glory it deserves. The woman’s deep brown hair peeks out below the long ruffle. At her neck is a short strand of what appears to be very lustrous pearls which indicate the family has money—pearls were not easy to come by in the young America. This portrait is a wonderful piece, strongly attributed to William Jennys and, in my opinion one of his best. Both portraits being offered separately are from the well-known folk art collection of Ralph and Susanne Katz. Circa 1795.
Provenance: Collection of Ralph & Suzanne Katz; Dana Tillou Gallery, Buffalo, November 1965.
McQueeney-Jones Mascolo, Frances "Beyond Tradition: A Folk Art Collection in New Hampshire," Antiques & Fine Art, vol. VII, issue 2, Summer/Autumn 2006, p. 143. Payne, Michael R. , Ph.D., and Suzanne Rudnick Payne, Ph.D. "The New "Delineating Pencil" Silhouettes by William Jennys." Antiques & Fine Art, Jan. 2011: 320-27.
Jones, William Bright. "The Portraits of Richard & William Jennys and the Story of their Wayfaring Lives." Ed. Peter Benes. Painting and Portrait Making in the American Northeast. N.p.: Boston U, 1994. 64-97. Print. The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 1994.
Please see the Folk Portrait Artists page for more information about Richard & William Jennys