Ralph D. Curtis: A nineteenth-century folk artist identified

J. E. Jelinek

J. E. Jelinek Art

November 2009 | In 1973 at an auction in Ellenville, New York, an early nineteenth-century portrait of a woman wearing a lace bonnet, holding a red book, and seated in a high-back chair sold for what was then an unusually high price of nine thousand dollars. The picture, painted on tulipwood, was unsigned and is believed to have come from Skaneateles, New York.
In the more than thirty-five years since then, portraits recognizably by the same hand have regularly appeared at auctions and antiques shows. The majority of those that have a reasonably reliable provenance stem from the Finger Lakes region of central New York State, or slightly north of there, and a few seem to have originated in the Midwest. My wife and I have now seen some fifty portraits that can be confidently attributed to the same hand on the basis of style. Only one is signed, a portrait of about 1830 to 1840 of a young man of the Fuller family. The painting’s current whereabouts is unknown, but when we had a chance to inspect it some years ago it bore a paper fragment pasted on the back with a partial signature “R. D. —URTIS.” Despite this clue, it was not until recently that genealogical information enabled us to successfully identify the artist.1

Ralph D. Curtis was born on July 19, 1808, in Pompey, near Syracuse, New York. He was the sixth of fourteen children born to Comfort Curtis (b. 1774), whose family had been in North America from before 1660, and Catherine Wahant Curtis, who had married in 1799.2 Ralph was raised on a farm and educated at the Gaines Academy in the town of the same name in Orleans County, New York, where he took lessons in portrait painting. Following his graduation in 1828, he went to Oswego, New York, where he worked as a painter for several years.3 He advertised as a traveling portraitist in a weekly Oswego newspaper in July 1834.4 On October 15, 1834, he married Allis Ann Wood (1813-1850), also of Pompey, at Saint James’ Church in Skaneateles.5

By 1837 Curtis must have been planning to leave New York, for in an advertisement in another Oswego newspaper he was offering to sell his house or exchange it for western land.6 He finally moved in 1844.7 The 1850 United States census lists Joseph Ralph D. Curtis as a portrait painter residing in Millcreek, Erie County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and their fourteen-year-old son Edwin (1836-1864). A second child, Mary Louisa, had died in infancy on October 1, 1841.8 The addition of the name Joseph was probably a clerical error on the part of the census taker, for Curtis’s name appears immediately below that of Joseph Bone, and in no other reference does Joseph precede the rest of his name.

Curtis apparently did not intend to stay in Pennsylvania, for records show that by 1848 he had purchased eighty acres in Genesee County, Michigan.9 Allis died in November 1850, and the 1860 United States census lists Curtis as a farmer residing alone in Burton, Genesee County. His age does not correspond to what it should be (forty-seven instead of fifty-two), but in all other respects the facts are correct.

After selling his farm in 1865, Curtis went to Upper Canada for a time before returning to Michigan. He continued both painting and farming, eventually owning three farms in Chesaning in Saginaw County, Michigan.10 The 1880 United States census, the last to include him, lists him as a portrait painter residing alone in Chesaning. He died on February 21, 1885, at the age of seventy-six and is buried in Crook Cemetery in Flint Township, Michigan.

The paintings that can now be attributed to Curtis testify to a long career that began in Upstate New York and continued in the Midwest (there are no identifiable works from his years in Pennsylvania). They are all portraits and, with one exception, are painted on hand-hewn wood panels, with tulipwood, pine, and poplar being the most common.11 The panels range in size from about twenty-four to thirty-two inches high and from about twenty to twenty-six inches wide. In general, his paintings of children are smaller (the smallest is 16 ½ by 19 inches). The panels range from one-half to five-eighths of an inch thick. Narrow horizontal supporting cleats, nailed to the top and bottom of the back of the panels to prevent cupping and shrinking, are sometimes present, not all of them original. Several of the paintings seem to have no base coat, making the grain of the wood readily visible. The majority of the paintings that we have seen are unframed. When they do retain what appear to be original frames, these are constructed of simple beveled wood and are sometimes gilded.

Many of the portraits appear to have been painted in pairs, in some cases on panels of slightly different sizes. The subjects are depicted in half- to two-thirds-length, and are often shown leaning slightly forward. Figures 1 and 2 are typical examples that illustrate several characteristic features of Curtis’s work. The man has a long face with a high forehead and he wears a wide stock. The woman wears a lace collar, lace bonnet, and brooch, and holds a kerchief in her right hand that obscures her thumb. In Curtis’s portraits the faces are modeled simply and outlined in a dark shade. The noses are often elongated, the foreheads prominent, and the eyebrows bushy. The philtrum, or dimple in the upper lip, is often deep. Some of the figures have a subtle, graduated nimbus effect abutting the head and upper body. One of the most constant features is that the thumbs are either hidden behind books, tucked into clothing, or otherwise disguised.

As in Figures 1 and 2, Curtis’s adult subjects are usually dressed in decorative, elegant clothes, but not of the highest style, befitting the upper middle class of professional and business people living in the northeastern United States in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The artist paid attention to depicting pleats, especially in the clothing of his younger subjects. Men’s suits and vests have notched lapels, and many of the women wear dresses with the leg-of-mutton sleeves typical of the period from 1825 to 1835. The women’s clothes are further enhanced by shawls and bonnets (often decorated in lace), also favored in that period, and many hold kerchiefs in their hands. The clothes of the adult subjects are rendered in thin paint usually in white, gray, or black. The background tends to be a uniform somber color, usually brown, gray, or grayish green. On rare occasions drapery is present.

Jewelry figures prominently in Curtis’s portraits, and he took particular care in depicting women’s earrings, brooches, rings, and necklaces—of jet, pearls, or coral—as well as men’s cravat pins and gold watch chains. Some rings are painted with dots to simulate luminescence. Books, a favorite prop used by folk painters to hide hands (a notoriously difficult part of the body to paint well), are also present in many of the paintings, though different objects such as rifles, musical instruments (see Fig. 3), flowers, and drinking cups also appear.

In contrast to his adult subjects, Curtis usually painted children wearing brightly colored clothing, usually red or green (see Fig. 4). The children’s necks are often foreshortened, or sometimes they appear to have no necks at all. That the artist enjoyed painting young subjects is evident in his sensitive depictions of the children of Dr. Abiather Gardner (b. 1810) and Sarah Thompson Gardner (Fig. 5) originally from Pownal, Bennington County, Vermont. Like their mother, Theodore Adolphus (Fig. 6) and an unidentified child (Fig. 7) are depicted in half-length in slightly forward-leaning poses. The outlines of the faces, noses, and eyebrows are boldly emphasized, and both children have foreshortened necks. Theodore wears finery including an Eton collar, a cravat, and a light brown waistcoat. Both children are rendered with sympathy but without sentiment.

Abiather Gardner, whose portrait is either lost or was never painted, was a physician and member of a prominent Pownal family. One of his direct ancestors was a founder of the town.12 He married Sarah (Sally) Thompson, also of Pownal, on May 3, 1829.13 The 1840 United States census lists him as a head of household in Mexico, Oswego County, New York. It was there that the three paintings of the Gardner family surfaced at the end of the twentieth century, and were presumably painted.14

In total we can now confidently link some fifty paintings to a previously unidentified artist—Ralph D. Curtis (see checklist here). His work, which spanned the second quarter of the nineteenth century, consists of portraits of families, mostly from upper New York State and a few from the Midwest. His style, although distinctive, fits into the general category of folk painters of that period.

1 I am grateful to Peter Warwick for initially finding Ralph D. Curtis in his genealogical research. I am indebted to him as well as to Bobbi Terkowitz and Vincent DeCicco for research on this artist as well as on some of the unidentified sitters. A few of the known portraits have been identified as originating in New England, but the provenances in these cases are very unreliable.  2 Rose Mary Goodwin, A Family Named Curtis: Descendants of Thomas Curtis of Wethersfield, Ct., 1598-1982 (R. M Goodwin, Sunland, Calif., 1983).  3 Michael A. Leeson with Damon Clarke, History of Saginaw County, Michigan, (Chicago, 1881), p. 821.  4 Oswego Palladium, July 9, 1834, p. 3.  5 Ibid., October 15, 1834, p. 2. Most genealogical records agree with this date and the bride’s first name. However, a book of records from Saint James’ Church gives the wedding date as October 10, 1834, and spells the bride’s first name Alice.  6 Oswego Commercial Herald, September 6, 1837, p. 3.  7 Leeson, History of Saginaw County, Michigan, p. 821.  8 Ibid.  9 Record for Ralph D. Curtis, Michigan Land Office Records, at www.ancestry.com.  10 Leeson, History of Saginaw County, Michigan, p. 821.  11 Curtis painted one portrait on canvas. It depicts an elderly woman with rosy cheeks holding a kerchief and dates to about 1830-1840 (whereabouts unknown).  12 See Joseph Parks, Pownal: A Vermont Town’s Two Hundred Years and More (Pownal Bicentennial Committee, Pownal, Vt., 1977).  13 Marriages in Pownal, Vt. to 1850, comp. Elmer I. Shepard, Berkshire Genealogical Notes, no. 3 (Williamstown, Mass., 1941).  14 Personal communication with Dr. Ralph Katz.

J. E. JELINEK is a physician and folk art collector based in New York.

CHECK LIST of portraits by or attributed to Ralph D. Curtis (1808-1885)
Compiled by J. E. Jelinek


1.  Forman Fowler (1806-1853), Wolcott, Wayne County, New York, c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 30 ½ by 21 ¾ inches. Collection of John and Ellen Williams.


2.  Rhoda Jane Fowler, Wolcott, Wayne County, New York, c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 30 ½ by 20 ¾inches. Collection of John and Ellen Williams.

3.  Young Woman with a Rose, c. 1835. Oil on wood, 28 by 20 inches. Offered at Christie’s New York, October 13, 1984, Lot 138, attributed to Sheldon Peck. Whereabouts unknown.

4.  Man with a Book, c. 1835. Oil on panel, 28 ½ by 23 ¾ inches. Possibly father of no. 3. Offered at Christie’s New York, October 13, 1984, Lot 138, incorrectly attributed to Sheldon Peck. Whereabouts unknown.


5.  Amelia G. Tiffe, Kingston, Ulster County, New York, c. 1838. Oil on wood, 26 by 20 inches. Private collection.


6.  Young Woman with a Book and a Ring, c. 1830-1840.. Oil on panel, 31 by 24 inches. Found in Maine; sister of no. 7. Whereabouts unknown.


7.  Young Woman with Three Stranded Necklace, c. 1830-1840. Oil on wood, 32 by 23 ½ inches. Found in Maine; sister of no. 6. Whereabouts unknown.

8.   Portrait of a Gentleman. Whereabouts unknown.

9.  Portrait of a Lady, c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 29 ½ by 22 ¼ inches. Found in New England; possibly wife of no. 10. Offered in The Magazine ANTIQUES, January 1975, p. 111. Collection of Mark and Tracy Whitehead.


10.  Portrait of a Gentleman, c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 32 ½ by 22 ¼ inches. Found in New England; possibly husband of no. 9. Offered in The Magazine ANTIQUES, January 1975, p. 111. Whereabouts unknown.

11.  Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1835. Oil on wood, 25 by 21 inches. Whereabouts unknown.


12.  Mr. Fuller, Cayuga, New York, c. 1830-1840. Oil on pine, 32 by 23 ¾  nches. Whereabouts unknown.


13.  Mrs. Fuller, Cayuga, New York, c. 1830-1840. Oil on pine, 31 ¾ by 23 ½ inches. Whereabouts unknown.

 

14.  Son of the Fuller Family, Cayuga, New York, c. 1830-1840. Inscribed “R. D. [C]urtis” on a paper label on the back. Oil on pine, 32 by 23 ½ inches. Whereabouts unknown.

15.  Man with a High Collar, c. 1830-1840. Oil on wood, 32 by 23 inches. Original black frame; husband of no. 16. Private collection.


16.  Lady with a Bonnet, Shawl, and Collar Secured by a Brooch, c. 1830-1840. Oil on wood, 32 by 23 inches. Original black frame; wife of no. 15. Private collection.


17.  Portrait of a Gentleman, c. 1830-1840. Skaneateles area. Oil on wood, 32 ¼ by 23 ½ inches. Husband of no. 18. Collection of Brenda Brimmer.


18.  Portrait of a Lady, Skaneateles area, c. 1830-1840. Oil on wood, 32 ¼ by 23 ½ inches. Wife of no. 17. Collection of Brenda Brimmer.


19.  Young Woman with a Book, c. 1835. Oil on wood, 31 by 21 ¾ inches. Private collection.

20.  Woman with Lace Bonnet and Red Book in a High Back Chair, Skaneateles area, c. 1830-1840. Oil on tulipwood, 29 ½ by 23 ¾ inches. Sold at Bruce and Crandall Auction, Ellenville, N. Y., September 22, 1973, Lot 363. Whereabouts unknown.


21.  Young Woman with Hair Ornament and Red Book, Upstate New York, c. 1830-1840. Oil on wood (poplar?), 28 by 21 3/8 inches. Frame appears to be original. Collection of Vincent and Stephanie DiCicco.


22.  Portrait of a Man, c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 31 ½ by 25 ½ inches. Sold as Rhode Island Man by M. Knoedler and Co., NYC, 1969. Whereabouts unknown.

23.  Young Husband with Curtain in Background, c. 1830-1840. Oil on wood. Illustrated and reported stolen in Southbury, Conn., in Antiques and the Arts Weekly, June 28, 1985, p. 53.  Whereabouts unknown.

24.  Young Wife with Curtain in Background. Oil on wood. Illustrated and reported stolen in Southbury, Conn., in Antiques and the Arts Weekly, June 28, 1985, p. 53. Whereabouts unknown.

25.  Portrait of a Gentleman in a Semi-Napoleonic Pose. Oil on poplar, 30 by 23 5/8 inches. Whereabouts unknown.


26.  Father of a Boy Holding Rifle and Girl with Green Cup, Skaneateles area, c. 1835. Oil on poplar, 32 ¼ by 25 5/8 inches. Private collection.


27.  Mother of a Boy Holding Rifle and Girl with Green Cup, Skaneateles area, c. 1835. Oil on poplar, 32 ¼ by 25 5/8 inches. Private collection.

28.  Boy Holding a Rifle, Skaneateles area, c. 1835-1841. Inscribed “Harry D[illegible]court, Born Hartlot, NY, June 7, 1822, died July 12, 1877, Richmond Illinois” in graphite on the back. Oil on poplar, 32 ¼ by 25 5/8 inches. Private collection.

29.  Girl Holding a Green Cup, Skaneateles area, c. 1835-1841. Oil on poplar, 17 by 24 inches. Private collection.


30.  Nathaniel Curtis, c. 1830. Inscribed “Nathaniel Curtis, father of [illegible]” in a later hand. Oil on wood in old red-painted frame. Found in Rhode Island; ex-collection of Dennis Raleigh. Whereabouts unknown.


31.  Sarah Thompson Gardner, Mexico, Oswego County, N.Y., c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 26 by 22 inches. Collection of Michael and Lucinda Seward.


32.  Theodore Adolphus Gardner (1830-1880), Mexico, Oswego County, N.Y., c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 20 by 17 inches. Collection of Michael and Lucinda Seward.


33.  Child of Sarah and Abiather Gardner, Mexico, Oswego County, N.Y., c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 19 by 16 ½ inches. Collection of Michael and Lucinda Seward.

34.  Man with Curly Hair and Prominent Eyebrows, Skaneateles, N. Y. Oil on wood. Ex-collection of Dennis Raleigh. Whereabouts unknown.

35.  Young Woman with Side Curls in a Green Dress with a Pink Scarf and Floral Pin, c. 1835. Oil on poplar, 32 by 22 inches. Offered at Northeast Auctions, Manchester, N.H., August 6, 2000, Lot 842. Whereabouts unknown.


36.  Elderly Lady with Rosy Cheeks Holding Kerchief, c. 1830-1840. Oil on canvas. Whereabouts unknown.


37.  Mr. Kemble, c. 1845-1850. Oil on wood, 32 by 23 ½ inches. Found in Lisbon, Ohio. Collection of Greg Kramer.


38.  Elizabeth Kemble (1808-1867), c. 1845-1850. Oil on wood, 32 by 23 ½ inches. Found in Lisbon, Ohio. Collection of Greg Kramer.


39.  Woman with Green Headress, Green Eyes, Brooch and a Book. Oil on wood, 31 ½ by 23 ½ inches. Offered at Northeast Auctions, Manchester, N.H. March 22, 2009, Lot. 1070. Whereabouts unknown.

40.  Young Girl in a Green Dress with a Strand of Large Pearls, c. 1830-1840. Oil on poplar, 20 ¼ by 15 inches. Sold at Sotheby’s New York, June 23, 1988, Lot 257, attributed to Albertus D. Whitney (active 1839). Private collection.

41.  Woman with Tied Lace Bonnet Holding a Shawl, c. 1840-1850. Oil on wood with missing cleats, 32 by 23 inches. Sold at Mike Clum Auction, Rushville, Ohio, May 2002. Whereabouts unknown.


42.  Josiah Bidwell (1801-1855), Hannibal, N.Y., c. 1835-1845. Oil on poplar, 32 by 23 inches. Collection of Richard and Vanessa Wayne.


43.  Abigail Richards Bidwell (1801-1885), Hannibal, N. Y., c. 1835-1845. Oil on poplar, 32 by 23 inches. Collection of Richard and Vanessa Wayne.

44.  Girl in Green Dress Holding a Rose, c. 1830-1840. Oil on pine, 20 ¼ by 16 ¾ inches. Sold at Litchfield Auction Gallery, Conn., 1970s. Whereabouts unknown.


45.  Young Woman in a Black Dress with White Lace Shawl, c. 1835. Oil on poplar, 31 ¼ by 22 inches. Found in New York State; sold at Sotheby’s New York, October 23, 1987, Lot 108. Whereabouts unknown.

46.  Young Boy with Watch and Chain, c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood. Whereabouts unknown.


47.  Young Boy, c. 1830-1840. Oil on poplar, 20 by 16 ¾ inches. Collection of Vincent and Stephanie DiCicco.

48.  Portrait of Woman in Black on Blue-Green Background, c. 1830-1840. Oil on wood, 30 by 23 ½ inches. Sold at Northeast Auctions, August 8, 1993, Lot 481. Whereabouts unknown.

49.   Young Boy with a Tin Horn, c. 1835-1840. Oil on wood, 20 ¾ by 15 inches. Collection of Leslie and Peter Warwick.

50.  Man in a Black Coat Holding a Cane, c. 1830. Oil on poplar, 30 by 23 ¼ inches. Found in the South; ex-collection of David Hillier. Whereabouts unknown.