This American watercolor conversation portrait offers us a very detailed look at the life of a Boston family. I should say a purportedly Boston family because I was told it came from a Boston home but I have no way to back that up and I’m not an expert in furniture styles so I can’t say that the furniture is from Boston. But I feel sure the painting is American and of New England origin.
This very serious family of five presents us with a delightful look at home styling, clothing fashions, even toys. Father is quite a handsome man who wears a blue single-breasted top coat over an eggshell-colored single-breasted waistcoat with a stepped collar. Under the waistcoat he wears a white shirt with vertical pleats and adorned with two ornate gold pins with some type of red gemstone. His top coat has a row of large brass buttons that come high up next to the lapel. The sleeves of his coat are gathered at the shoulder then tight through the arm, ending well below his wrist. The wrist cuffs are slit to the side to allow his hand movement and adorned with brass buttons. He wears a black cravat, tied in a knot at his throat and a white collar peaking above the cravat and stock. Dad wears trousers which are fashionably tight fitting at the legs and partially cover his black leather shoes or short boots. Dad stretches his proper right leg behind the leg of what appears to be a gaming table so that his son has room to stand between his legs.
The standing son wears a vivid red tunic that reaches just below his knees. The tunic has a wide green belt and he wears a dapper yellow and red print scarf around his neck. His baggy white trousers are ankle length and cover the tops of his black short boots. His platinum blond hair is short and combed towards his face and he is reading a book to show us that he is being educated. Another son sits between his father and mother, at the proper right side of the sofa. He wears a tunic of the same blue as Dad’s suit. This tunic opens in the front, likely with buttons, and has a narrower belt with a small buckle. Under the tunic, this brother wears a red and white checkered shirt with a small white back of trim around the neckline. The red of the shirt matches the red patches on his tunic. He also wears baggy white trousers over short black boots. This son hands what appears to be an orange to his mother.
Mom sits at the far end of the sofa, holding their toddler. She wears an unusual hairstyle, most of which is covered by her elaborate lace trimmed bonnet with a huge bow and long untied ribbons coming from the back. Her hair is parted in the middle and rolled into 6 tight ringlet-like curls (more like rolls) that start from under the bonnet and lie vertically to frame her face and cover the top of her ears. I’ve seen a similar style of this period with curls to frame the face, but never these tight rolls. I believe that the hair must have been rolled around something like wool or horsehair and pinned to the head. The bonnet, bow and curls create quite an interesting style! She wears drop earrings which appear to have a center gemstone with either diamonds or ornate gold work surrounding the center. Her dress is pale yellow with light colored and thin stripes. The bodice is full and gathered into the sash which is at her natural waist. Her sleeves are very full at the shoulder then tight from the elbow to the wrist. This is called the demi-gigot sleeve. She wears flat black sandals that lace up to at least her ankles over white stockings.
In her lap she holds the couple’s youngest child in a khaki-colored and white striped dress with a yellow or gold-colored scarf tied round the child’s neck and waist. The baby wears red short boots (most likely very soft leather). He holds a silver rattle.
It is obvious that the family takes great pride in their household furnishings and style. The gaming table to the viewer’s far left has wonderfully thin tapered legs of the Federal Period (Hepplewhite style). I can’t really tell whether it is inlaid….there are a few hints that it might be. The Sheraton sofa with its wonderful arrow feet appears to have a frame of tiger maple with upholstery of two tons of green. We can only see the side of the chest to the viewer’s far right. While we cannot tell much about this piece of furniture, we are treated to a glimpse at the marble bust sitting atop the chest. Behind the family hang three paintings: all landscapes, all in gilt frames, and the one in the middle having great style with shells in each corner and beading at the outer edge. A potted rose sits in the window which is partially covered with a somewhat translucent light colored half-drape with two large tassels hanging from above. The wide plank floor is kind of “to die for”….at least, down here in Texas, I’d die for it!
Condition of the painting is good but some of the blue paints seem to be a bit fugitive (meaning they did not hold up well to UV light). The fugitive nature of the paint actually gives the blue wall a wonderful look of having wallpaper. There are some small brown spots scattered throughout. A few small areas of paint loss are scattered around the painting. You can easily see all of these apologies in the detailed photos below. The painting is on card or thick paper and it was surrounded by a gold Dresden trim that is mostly gone from the bottom edge of the painting. You could have it removed altogether but, to my way of thinking, it is part of the history of this wonderful painting and I would leave it as is. I acquired the painting in this period frame with the painting floating on the painted paper that you see around the sight edges. I don’t know if the frame or painted paper are original to the piece, but everything is period and I like the look so I just added conservation materials (including Japanese rice paper to hold the painting in position on the backing paper), cleaned the rabbet of the frame and the glass, and put it all back together. Framed size 16 ¾” x 21 ½”. Sight size 13” x 16 ¾”.
This is one of the best conversation watercolor portraits I’ve ever offered. I’m really excited about it and hope you are also. Circa 1825.