Sunday, July 11, 2010

An Italian Straw Hat?

Last weekend, Boy and I took a quick spin through a number of antiques shops in the nearby town and came home with this small, framed watercolor portrait of a jaunty young man.

Dating from the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it is a simple and straightforward depiction of a fellow in his twenties wearing a jacket and neckerchief, showing an impressive curl of hair at his temple, and sporting a straw hat adorned with a black ribbon.  And it's small, too, with the outside of the frame measuring only 7 ¼ inches by 6 ¼ inches.  The dealer speculated that the sitter was perhaps a sailor and that the picture was likely American, but could possibly be European.

English Man of War Sailors
London Illustrated News, 1854

Although similar hats were worn by English sailors, we think our fellow is most likely an American flatboatman, of a type seen on the rivers and canals of the New Republic, and a subject painted often by George Caleb Bingham.

Jolly Flatboatmen In Port, 1857
George Caleb Bingham, artist
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

On the other hand, we all agreed that he also looked Italian--or maybe French--given his features and the prominence of his finely shaped aquiline nose.

The straw hat he is wearing is similar to several that we saw two weeks ago in the Borsalino shop in Rome, next to our hotel.  Since many of the better straw hats made today, and also those made in the twentieth century, were made in Italy, could it be that all of these nineteenth century fellows are showing off their Italian straw hats?  Was there a mania for these hats in England and America before the Civil War?

The hat is similar to ones topping several mid-nineteenth-century Staffordshire figures we have at Darlington.

And here is a twentieth century Venetian gondolier wearing a related hat.

In any event, regardless of the hat's origin or the nationality of the sitter, we thought it to be a charming little picture, and a worthy addition to our collection at Darlington.  Furthermore, given that the asking price was reasonable (for these sorts of things), we agreed to buy it.  Since bringing it home we haven't decided where to hang it (we are running out of viable wall space for such pictures), but I am sure we'll find the right place for it soon.

As Boy was photographing the picture it got him thinking about straw hats, as much of our picture's charm lies in its depiction of the wearer's hat.  Not surprisingly, given that it is summer and therefore the time of year that one has straw hats at the ready and about, it was easy to make quick work of assembling a number of ours and photographing them.  For, in addition to collecting art and decorations, we also collect hats.  We have bought ours low and high, inexpensively and dear, and also new and vintage.

And we wear our hats.  Although I do admit, however, that there are some hats in our collection that it is unlikely either of us will ever wear again.  I doubt that Boy will again wear the blue straw porkpie hat that he bought almost fifteen years ago, and wore out once or twice.  It looked good at the time . . .

However, I think he will always look marvelous wearing this hat, a great favorite:

Tell me, where do you think the young man depicted in the picture we bought last weekend is from?  Do you think he's American, or from elsewhere?  Do you think he is wearing an Italian straw hat?

All photos by Boy Fenwick, except of the Venetian gondolier (photographer unknown) and of Boy himself, which was taken by Reggie Darling


  1. I can't resist a straw hat with a black ribbon and have quite a collection myself. Like your LLB totes, I have one in the car, one in the boat, a few next to the door and so on. and they are recycled in the same fashion. As to your little friend, perhaps an American back from his European tour, very attached to his new hat and his new curl, my best guess!

  2. Charming picture! I think he looks French, but if I'd just returned from Italy, I could easily believe he was Italian! I hope you will let us see where you hang the picture; will it become part of a grouping?

  3. Of course this is no guarantee of the sitter's origin, and I'm no expert, but the frame at least looks very American to me. I can't imagine anything like it coming out of France or Italy at the time. Perhaps English, but it has the blocky, endearingly awkward proportions of many American things of the period. Extremely charming; very jealous.

  4. And let the fun begin, as I respectfully disagree with Mr. Heywood. Not seeing it in person, of course, my opinion is worth only what I'm charging for it here---nothing. To me, it does not appear American, but European, and although without seeing it, I can only speculate, but I'm betting the frame cut down from a larger one. What I can say more definitely is that the dealer's speculation that he is a sailor is off the mark. That jaunty young man is a civilian, in civilian garb. As a matter of further interest, a painting of our town 'Morning View of Blue Hill Village, 1824', by Rev. Jonathan Fisher, shows just such a man in the foreground, in just such a hat. The Rev. Fisher's family, incidentally, actually manufactured these hats as a home industry, and the early 19th century plaster form for them still survives.

    On another note, the Dilettante, whose sartorial style wavers between Brooks Brothers bag lady and "I wasn't thinking before I started painting the barn while wearing a Thomas Pink shirt", and who looks totally unconvincing in any style hat, was browsing in T.J. Maxx (the closest we have in Eastern Maine to Bergdorf Men), when he spied an extremely handsome straw hat with good grosgrain band (I may dress badly, but I do know from grosgrain nevertheless). I tried it on, it looked surprisingly sharp, and then in a fit of irrational thrift (it was the height of the economic collapse, not a good time for antiques dealers), I put it back. Yup. I'm stupid that way. Regretted it ever since. Just as well, I'd only have sat on it or gotten it splattered with paint or left it at someone's house by now, anyway....

  5. Wonderful little watercolor!

    My in-laws had a place in Blue Hill for a few years. Oh, if it's Blue Hill, ME.......

  6. Not that it clarifies anything at all, but Augustus was known to wear a straw hat, and he was unlikely to have been the first "Italian" to do so.

    P.S. TDED -- As much as it pains me to do so, I'm with Heywood on the origin of the frame, and with you on the subsequent modification.

  7. My thoughts: a young American who worked on the canals. I lived in Washington, D.C. for about 15 years and became quite familiar with the C&O Canal (runs through Georgetown). Every reanactment had young men with this type of hat. Have also seen this type of hat at Scottsville here in Virginia at their bateau races. Its a lovely piece and I, too, would have snapped it up! And thanks to the Dilettante for all great information!

  8. Nick: I agree with you, I think the picture is American, but I'm not sure of the nationality of the sitter. PS, love your blog.

    DED: Interesting that you think the frame may be cut down; if so it happened very early in its life, at least that's what I surmise from looking at it. I, too, find myself wandering around Darlington wearing inappropriate clothing or footwear for what I'm doing, often by chance. More often than not I catch myself weeding wearing Belgians on a cool summer's morn...

    Patsy: I long to visit Blue Hill again one day, as I remember its beauty, and it would give me the opportunity to descend on DED in his lair...

    Ancient: Thank you for the tid-bit.

    SuSu: What fun to go to a bateau race in Virginia, it sounds like a lovely afternoon, indeed.

  9. Love your hat collection -- immediately transported me to my beloved late father's closet. Always thought any gentleman should lay claim to an extensive hat wardrobe.

  10. A charming watercolor, and such fun to speculate about the dandy. I agree that the frame looks American (black walnut, I think?) and that this fellow was no sailor. To me, his high-crowned hat and aquiline profile suggest a young planter-- perhaps a Creole from Louisiana or another French settlement along the Missouri or Mississippi?

  11. Thanks! I clearly love your blog, though I don't currently have problems deciding whether to suggest uniforms for my servants or where to hang the latest early 19th century painting -- I think the fun of blogs is to live vicariously through another. What do you say?

    Love it. Keep it up.

  12. From the slant of his hat to the slant of his nose, I do believe he came to America perhaps coming from Europe, Alsace Lorraine. I would suspect his name to be something like Nicolas or Paul and he was sitting to have this sent back home to his family or for his love.
    Lovely lass.

  13. Hello PVE: I suspect you are correct, given his facial features . . .


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