Felice Michele Cornè was born on the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy in 1752. Although Elba was spared invasion by Napoleon, Cornè was worried enough about the war to flee to America in in 1800 on the ship Mount Vernon. He lived first in Salem, Massachusetts in the home of Elias Hasket Derby who is often, today, referred to by Nathaniel Hawthorne as “King Derby”. Derby is known as the first American millionaire, a title he earned by privateering and opening trade with Russia, the Baltics, Europe and the East Indies. Derby, Jr (who was captain of the Mount Vernon) was enchanted by Neapolitan marine paintings that he had collected over the years and encouraged Cornè to make his skills in Neapolitan paintings available to Salem. Cornè stayed for several years in Salem, often working with Samuel McIntire (carver extraordinaire) on the interiors of several Salem homes. In 1807, Cornè moved to Boston and by 1822, he had moved to Newport, Rhode Island where he remained until his death in 1845.
Nina Fletcher Little called Cornè the most versatile of America’s Neapolitan style painters, showing his great talent not only in the marine paintings for which he is most known, but also colorful and romantic landscapes and his portraits. His portraits have a definite folk art appeal which comes through in exaggerated facial modeling and fanciful poses.
This oil on canvas self-portrait was attributed to Cornè by Childs Gallery in Boston and identified by the Gallery’s label affixed to the reverse of the stretcher. I agree with the attribution on the basis of similarities with portraits such as his signed works of Captain James Cook (Peabody Essex Collection), and “Portrait of a Dark Haired Girl” sold by Sotheby’s in 2006.
The detail in the modeling of the subject is so wonderful that I just feel like I could reach out and touch him. Yet, it is also somewhat fanciful. And, look at his hand! The paint under his fingernails. The veins on the back of his hands. The folds at his knuckles. It is so….so….”artistic”! I truly love this portrait.
The portrait has been lined and is on a modern stretcher. It has been cleaned and has some spotty restoration, mostly to small spots in the background but also in a narrow line on his chin, going into the stock and to his left cheek. The touch-up painting is mostly to fill craquelere (which has been tamed and secured) but there was probably a tear on the chin and cheek which required the lining for repair. The touch-up is virtually invisible except under blacklight. Size of the stretcher is 29 ½” x 24 ½”. It came to me in a modern frame which I found totally inappropriate for such a great portrait. So, I’ve had it placed in a period gilt frame with a scoop profile. The frame rabbet was just a bit too tall, so I had my framer insert a gilt liner which I think totally disappears into the frame. The frame size is 37” x 32” and the frame has been regilded…but looks fabulous and is very appropriate for this wonderful portrait.
Corne’s work is displayed in many major museums including the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts; Peabody-Essex Museum of Salem; Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; New Haven Colony Historical Society; New York Historical Society; Newport Historical Society; Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Rhode Island Historical Society; Smithsonian Institution; Historic New England; United States Department of State; United States Naval Academy Museum; Wadsworth Athenaeum; and The White House, Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) lists 137 paintings by Cornè.
This is one heck of a portrait! Circa 1800.