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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Tuesday, June 08, 2021

A Portrait of a Gentleman at Matawan

Earlier this year the Asbury Park Press published an article about a man who owned the Matawan, New Jersey, house of the poet and journalist Philip Freneau and started looking for a reported portrait of Freneau as a young man by John Singleton Copley.

The Frick Art Reference Library listed such a painting in the collection of the Plimpton family. It was put up for auction in 2018 as “Portrait of a Gentleman” and “attributed to Circle of Copley,” but failed to sell at the estimated price of $5-7,000.

The homeowner contacted the Plimptons and convinced them to donate the portrait to the Matawan Historical Society. On retrieving the canvas, he discovered that “The nameplate on the frame identified the subject as Philip Freneau, and the artist as John Singleton Copley.”

The local newspaper presents this as evidence of an exciting rediscovery of an authentic portrait. It’s merely evidence that at some point that painting was labeled and sold as Copley’s portrait of Freneau.

But we knew that already. The American Art Annual for 1923 reported that painting had sold the previous year for $260. Undoubtedly its price was higher for having the names of a famous artist and a famous subject attached—but by whom? There’s no evidence Copley made such a portrait and no mention of this canvas before that date.

In the 1920s, as I discussed back here, the Copley Gallery in Boston sold a lot of eighteenth-century portraits as products of colonial America. Those canvases probably showed little-known British gentlemen as painted by little-known British portraitists. But their value increased if rich Americans believed they came from the few artists working in North America before the Revolution and showed people whose names appeared in our history books.

In 1941 Lewis Leary published the biography That Rascal Freneau: A Study in Literary Failure. In a footnote he wrote:
Another “Freneau portrait,” listed in the Frick Art Reference Library, 1121 14Q, as by Copley, represents a young man dressed in the attire of a dandy of about 1770. It is not mentioned by Barbara Neville Parker and Ann Bolling Wheeler, John Singleton Copley, American Portraits in Oil, Pastel and Miniatures with Biographical Sketches, Boston, 1938. The portrait is at present part of the George A. Plimpton Collection, Columbia University Library. “I cannot find,” says Mrs. Plimpton in a letter (June 24, 1938) to the writer, “that we have anything but the dealer’s word for the authenticity of the Freneau portrait.” I have been convinced that it is neither by Copley nor of Freneau. 
The Frick Art Reference Library continues to list that painting as “not by Copley.” As for the “Circle of Copley,” in 1770 that circle consisted entirely of Henry Pelham, who didn’t travel with his stepbrother to the New York area when he supposedly painted this canvas.

1 comment:

Dean Slone said...

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!