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.