Portrait miniatures in the New Republic

Anson Dickinson

An advertisement in the New Haven Connecticut Journal on May 27, 1802, announced the commencement of Anson Dickinson’s career as an artist.10 By May 1804 he was successful enough to leave for New York, where he established a studio on Broadway. In addition, he traveled through western Connecticut and New York State, painting some of his finest early works. His portrait of Royal Ralph Hinman, taken in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1807 (Fig. 8), shows Malbone’s pronounced influence in the placement of the sitter and the use of the glowing ivory support.
Years later William Dunlap (1766–1839), who is the principal source of information on the early arts in this country, recorded that in 1811 Dickinson “was the best miniature painter in New-York,” but that “the promise of his youth has not been realized.”11 Despite Dunlap’s harsh assessment, Dickinson’s satisfied sitters included General Jacob Brown, General Peter Buell Porter, Sam Houston, Gilbert Stuart, and Washington Irving. He remained indebted to Malbone throughout his career; as late as about 1840, though working in the more fashionable rectangular format, he was still employing Malbone’s feigned landscape background (see Fig. 9).

Joseph Wood

In 1811, after arriving in New York from New London, Connecticut, the miniaturist Mary Way (1769–1833) wrote that Joseph Wood (Fig. 10) was, “from what I have heard and seen…the only painter here worth notice.”12 The son of a farmer in Clarkstown, New York, at the age of fifteen Wood ran away to New York City, where he was first apprenticed to a silversmith.13 By 1801 the twenty-three-year-old artist had married and was established as a miniaturist. In 1803 he formed an association with John Wesley Jarvis. Recounting Jarvis’s recollection of the early years of the partnership, Dunlap recorded that the two often made a hundred dollars a day taking profiles with a physiognotrace. “These were piping times,” he wrote, “and what with Jarvis’s humour, Wood’s fiddling and fluting—and the painting executed by each, they had a busy and merry time of it. But I fear ‘merry and wise,’ was never the maxim which guided either.”14 He went on to say that the two artists “indulged in the excitements, and experienced the perplexities of mysterious marriages; and it is probable that these perplexities kept both poor, and confined them to the society of young men, instead of that respectable communion with ladies, and the refined circles of the city, which Malbone enjoyed: and I have reason to think, that these mysteries and perplexities caused the dissolution of the partnership of Jarvis and Wood on no friendly terms.”

An artist of shimmering talent, Wood appropriated more from Malbone than any of the other disciples. Often the only way of distinguishing the work of the two artists is to be able to place a portrait after Malbone’s death (compare, for example, Figs. 6 and 13).

For a short period of time before he moved to Philadelphia in 1813, Wood took on the fledgling miniaturist Nathaniel Rogers (1787–1844) as an apprentice. He also gave instruction to Way, who described his technique of using a specific light source, which would influence academic New York miniatures for the next fifty years: “Wood closes the lower casement with the shutter. Of course, the light strikes with most force upon the temple or side of the forehead which projects most as the head is a little turned. Next, it falls upon the cheek bone under the eye, where a delicate shade tint begins, almost imperceptible, losing the light by degrees towards the lower part of the face” (see Fig. 11).15

When Wood died in 1830 the Washington National Intelligencer ran the headline, “Death of a Man of Genius.” And indeed he was. President James Madison, Eli Whitney, De Witt Clinton, Commodore James Biddle, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (Fig. 12), General Andrew Jackson, and Francis Scott Key all sat to him. But Dale T. Johnson noted that “his notoriously dissolute life was the basis for a temperance tract published in Washington in 1834.”16

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All