J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Portrait of Thomas Oliver?

Speaking of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver, here’s a painting that in 1929 was sold to the Museum of Fine Arts for $2,500 as a portrait of Oliver by Joseph Blackburn.

The picture was signed “I Blackburn Pinxit 1760.” Oliver’s name was penciled on the stretcher.

According to the dealer, Frank W. Bayley, this portrait of Thomas Oliver and another of his wife Elizabeth went into the custody of Penelope Vassall, Elizabeth’s aunt by marriage, after the Revolution.

I imagine that could have happened in the fall of 1774, after the Olivers left Cambridge, or after the war, when Penelope Vassall returned to her home there. Bayley provided a line of inheritance for the portraits from Penelope Vassall ending with “Elizabeth Degan of Brooklyn.”

Bayley was the author of a big early study of John Singleton Copley and another book on five other portrait artists in colonial America. He was also an art dealer heading the Copley Gallery in Boston, which sold a lot of eighteenth-century portraits.

In 1931 Oliver Elton shared a paper about Thomas Oliver with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. About this painting, Elton said:
It is an excellent half-length pastel by Joseph Blackburn. Thomas appears as a well-favored youth, clean-shaven, with brown hair worn long; with brown eyes, arched eyebrows, wide forehead, and well-cut lips. He wears a blue coat with glimpses of gold lining, and a white stock. He also wears an expression, rather engaging, of modest complacency and inexperience; but not, I think, of weakness.
Around the same time, Bayley authenticated a portrait of George Washington as painted by Gilbert Stuart, helping a New York gallery to sell it to a Boston collector for $25,000.

When the new owner became suspicious, he sent the canvas to the Museum of Fine Arts for another look. According to Robert C. Vose, Jr., writing in the Archives of American Art Journal in 1981, conservators “removed a lining canvas and found, on the back of the original, the signature of a female art student who had made it as a copy at the Museum three years before.”

Bayley killed himself in 1932.

The Colonial Society published the Oliver picture with Elton’s article the next year. However, other scholars began scrutinize all the portraits Bayley had sold in his final years. In April 1936, the American Antiquarian Society published an article by John Hill Morgan and Henry Wilder Foote (P.D.F. download) newly identifying many paintings by Joseph Blackburn and reappraising the identification of others.

In particular, they looked at the portrait said to show Thomas Oliver. They agreed that Blackburn was not known to have worked in pastels and the painting did not fit his style, no matter if his name was painted on it.

Morgan and Wilder also found that though there was a Degen (spelled slightly differently) branch from the Vassall family, neither genealogy nor local directories could locate Elizabeth Degan of Brooklyn or her supposed father, the people who had allegedly owned this canvas.

Likewise, that article cast doubt on the picture of Elizabeth Oliver and portraits said to show Gov. Frances Bernard, his wife, and Gov. Thomas Hutchinson—all signed “I Blackburn Pinxit 1760” and sold by Bayley.

In 1981 Vose wrote about his family’s gallery:
My father bought nine “Colonial” portraits from [Bayley]. Most were accompanied by certificates stating that they were likenesses of Governors or other important American personages. All have proven to be eighteenth-century English paintings whose documentation was expertly forged. Mr. Bayley bought them from a Mr. [Augustus] Deforest in New York and the certificates were contrived in New York by a Mrs. Winter.
And that is why the Museum of Fine Arts doesn’t display this painting, and why it’s no longer used as a portrait of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver.

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