Thursday, September 23, 2010

Oh, Those Beautiful Boardmans

There are many paintings in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I stop and admire when I visit the museum, which is something I make a point of doing regularly.  One of my favorites is a portrait, painted in 1789 by the American artist Ralph Earl, of Elijah Boardman, a prosperous and handsome young drygoods merchant.  The sitter poses at a standing desk in his shop in New Milford, Connecticut, bolts of costly textiles revealed in the storeroom beyond. The painting is one of the Metropolitan's masterpieces of early American art.

Elijah Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1789
83 x 51 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I vividly recall the first time I saw the painting, for it literally stopped me in my tracks.  Not only was I impressed that it was a wonderfully composed, beautifully painted portrait, with the subject painted life scale, but I was--to put it mildly--astonished at how handsome the sitter was.  Of course I had seen many early American portraits of distinguished and sometimes handsome men and women over the years, but this painting was something else altogether.  I had never seen such a gorgeously dressed, manly, and jaw-droppingly handsome specimen of male pulchritude in an American portrait of the eighteenth century.   It took my breath away.

Elijah Boardman, painting detail

Once I recovered myself I wondered who, exactly, was this Elijah Boardman, and how did he come to have his portrait painted by Ralph Earl?

And this is what I found.

Elijah Boardman was the son of major landowners in the Connecticut River Valley, where the senior Mr. Boardman was active in various official posts, befitting a man of his stature.  The Boardmans lived in a sophisticated world of like-minded citizens, where wealth and refinement mirrored industry and service to their young nation.  Elijah was one of seven children, with an older brother named Daniel and a younger sister named Esther.

Elijah and his brother Daniel began their careers as drygoods merchants in New Milford, where they remained in business together until Daniel moved to New York City in the mid-1790s.  Over time, Elijah became one of New Milford's largest landowners and eventually assumed his father's prominent position in town.  He eventually became active in state and national politics, ultimately serving in both the Connecticut legislature and the United States Senate.

The Boardmans were Ralph Earl's greatest patrons, commissioning numerous paintings from the early American master painter over a ten-year period.  In addition to painting Elijah Boardman's portrait in 1789, Ralph Earl also painted portraits of his brother Daniel and his sister Esther the same year.

Daniel Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1789
81 5/8 x 55 1/4 inches
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 

While clearly a good-looking man, Elijah's older brother Daniel is not as handsome as Elijah.  Befitting his standing as eldest son, Daniel is portrayed as a country gentlemen in a more august, pastoral setting than his younger merchant brother Elijah, with the town of New Milford in the distance, referencing the Boardman family's extensive landholdings.  Like Elijah's, Daniel Boardman's life-size, full-length portrait is substantial, measuring four and a half feet by almost seven feet.  Impressive indeed.

Esther Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1789
42 1/2 x 32 inches
Private collection
 

Their younger sister, Esther, was painted by Earl dressed and styled in a manner similar to the fashionable young English ladies painted by Thomas Gainsborough.  Painted in subtle, earthy tones and with a restrained palette, Esther Boardman's three-quarter-length seated portrait measures a more moderate size of less than three feet by four feet.  These three paintings of the handsome and beautifully dressed Boardman siblings comprise one of the more remarkable groupings of portraits painted in the New Republic.

But wait, there's more.

In 1796, seven years after these portraits were painted, Earl returned to New Milford and painted a portrait of Elijah Boardman's wife, Mary Anna (Whiting) Boardman, with their firstborn son, William Whiting Boardman.  Like those of her husband and brother-in-law, Mrs. Boardman's portrait was done on a grand scale, and depicts the sitter expensively dressed (befitting the wife of a rich drygoods merchant) and in a sumptuous setting.

Mrs. Elijah Boardman and Son, painted by Ralph Earl in 1796
85 1/4 x 56 1/4 inches
The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California

Also that year, Ralph Earl painted pendant portraits of the senior Boardmans.  Although executed on a smaller scale and in a more restrained manner than those of their offspring, the elder Boardmans' portraits are masterful nonetheless.

Sarah Bostwick Boardman and Sherman Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1796
each approximately 47 x 36 in.
The New Milford Historical Society, New Milford, Connecticut

But yet, there's still more.

Also in 1796, Elijah Boardman commissioned a painting by Earl of the "mansion house" and shop that he built on the green in New Milford in 1792, when he married Anna Whiting.  Like the portraits of Elijah Boardman and his wife and son, the painting of the house and shop is generously scaled, measuring four by four and a half feet.

Houses Fronting New Milford Green, painted by Ralph Earl in 1796
48 x 54 1/8 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Boardman house still stands on the green in New Milford today, where it is currently occupied by law offices.

The Elijah Boardman House, built 1792
New Milford, Connecticut
Image courtesy of the New Milford Historical Society

It is fascinating to think that at one time three of the paintings shown in today's essay--the one of Elijah Boardman, another of his wife and son, and the one of the house and shop--once resided in this house.  And now they are scattered to the winds.  It must have been thrilling to see three such impressively scaled pictures hanging in one house, and in such a time that few Americans had ever seen such a display.

Not only was Elijah Boardman one of the handsomest men of the Connecticut River Valley in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but he was also one of its greatest artistic patrons.  We are all richer for the record he commissioned from Ralph Earl of his life and that of his family, and we are fortunate indeed that these masterpieces of our nation's patrimony are displayed in museums and collections today such that you and I may study, know, and enjoy them.

The primary source for information and images used in this essay is "Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic" by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, published by the Yale University Press in conjunction with the Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, Connecticut

24 comments:

  1. Ah, Reggie, you and I should discuss. My father collects pieces in this vicinity, albeit nowhere near as handsome:). My mother is from the Connecticut River Valley, but evidently preacher men don't have their pictures painted::).

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  2. Thanks for such a beautifully researched posting. My favorite is of Elijah, and like you, I would visit it regularly. I'm intrigued by the bright blue lining in Daniel's hat. ... Mark

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  3. Good morning, Reggie. I have seen this portrait and like you was struck with the handsomeness of the man. Boardman's portrait is one of a number that appeal to me for roughly the same reason. There always seems to be a living quality to them - as if the painter was so enthralled he captured the life and character.

    Very good post to begin the day with. I'm so glad we had breakfast together.

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  4. ahhhh. I have adored these paintings for years...since childhood, when I first saw them published in an article in Antiques magazine. Still stunning.

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  5. Dear Reggie, These portraits are indeed masterpieces and on such a grand scale. That for me makes them very special indeed and they must create a very impressive and dominant presence when viewed at first hand.

    I do so wish that the 'monied classes' would commission artists as much as their predecessors did since in this way, not only are artists afforded a living, but also there is a permanent record, with an artist's eye, for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

    A great friend of mine is a portrait painter and I have commissioned him more than once. For me, the most interesting part of the process is seeing that although the portrait is recognisable as me it is not an exact replica as a photograph would be. It is intriguing looking at what the artist sees rather than just what is there. Does, I wonder, a rendition of Reggie or Boy hang on the walls of Darlington House?

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  6. Thank you for doing the research, Reggie! I thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous paintings as well as the fascinating history.

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  7. interesting that the painting of the house is larger than that of the daughter -very telling....
    I remember seeing this house in new Milford when I was there a few years ago and have a few pictures of it that I need to dig out; Will send to you if I find the files.

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  8. I keep coming back to the portrait of Elijah, and studying the detail. I would have loved to have seen all the original buttons and buckles that he donned for this portrait! ... Mark

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  9. Reggie --

    I have very mixed feelings about this.

    They're lovely pictures, to be sure. But why are they in museums? Why aren't they owned by the subjects' g-g-g-grandchildren? Why doesn't someone raise a glass to them at Christmas, or on New Year's?

    There are many reasons why pictures pass out of families, and some of them, I suspect, have little to do with money or taxes. Off-hand, I can think of several pictures that The Metropolitan would be happy to hang on its walls that are sequestered in boxes in other places because someone didn't care for their cousins, or offer to sell. But whether they hang on museum walls or are packed away elsewhere -- they're gone to the people who might genuinely care about them as subjects. They have become, at best, pretty objects.

    I have quite a few family paintings, and I would never part with any of them. I hate the idea that they might some day hang on a museum wall -- or some place unimaginably worse. OTOH, I realize that as generations pass, connections become attenuated, people run out of money, and there is often an insuperable temptation to sell important pictures to offset estate taxes.

    So someday, I suppose, the better of these pictures will ultimately be in museums. But they will be like the once brightly painted Greek and Roman statues we now see as plain marble -- stripped of everything that made them immediate, personal and alive. They will be mere objects, never subjects -- no matter what the label has to say.

    P.S. A vaguely related point: I loathe Ralph Lauren's use of 19th and early 20th century portraits in some his stores. Because if you think about it, every one of those pictures represents a family that failed, or died out, or both.

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  10. LPC --

    If you're really interested, you might want to check the Yale collections, which hold portraits of several Connecticut River Valley preachers.

    (You'll have to write a letter with specifics; it can't be done online.)

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  11. My goodness...I was only going to take a quick peek at your blog and found myself sitting here for at least an hour! After being mesmerized by the visually stunning and historcally fascinating Boardman family...I became immersed in the delightful Pug chronicles, which touched me immensely and were a joy to read...all four of them!

    Please give Pompey a pat for me (or a scratch, whichever he likes most), and thank you for the wonderful read(s).
    Jessica~

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  12. LPC: The denizens of the Connecticut River Valley were a rich and cultured lot, and produced many patrons of the arts. As Ancient says, the Yale collections (and also those of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford) would be a good place to look for portraits of your ancestors. Not that he was from that area, but within the Yale collection is a particularly noteworthy painting of a man of the cloth, titled "Bishop Berkeley and His Family", painted in the early 1700s by John Smibert. There are also several portraits there by Ralph Earl, too. I know the Yale collections particularly well because they were much studied by me when I was an undergraduate there, where I double-majored in English Lit and Art History, specializing in the American decorative arts. How I wound up in investment banking with that as my education is a long and tortured story...

    Mark Ruffner: Thank you for your comments, and welcome to RD. Yes, the details and flourishes of these paintings by Earl are marvelous, and what--among other things--elevates them from being mere representations in to true works of art.

    Blue and DED: Thank you, gentlemen. I believe we are the three of us kindred spirits when it comes to these things...

    Edith: I agree that it is unfortunate that the practice of having one's portrait painted by the great artists of the day has gone the way of the Dodo bird, at least except in the rarest of circles (one thinks of the Devonshires' patronage of Lucien Freud and the English Rothschilds' of David Hockney of course). There are no paintings of the owners of Darlington House that hang on our walls, but we do have a painting of our beloved Pompey.

    Patsy: Thanks

    Architect: I would enjoy seeing such pictures. I plan on going to see the house when I am next in New Milford, where I sometime find myself.

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  13. Ancient: You raise many compelling points in your comment, and I thank you for doing so. I once shared my life with a man whose family owned a number of extremely valuable paintings by artists the names of which would be instantly recognizable to anyone reading this blog. The cost of insuring them, and the related fear of their being stolen (or damaged in any way) ultimately led them to donate several to museums and sell the rest at auction, where they realized stratospheric prices. Noone was happy that they left the family, but all were actually somewhat relieved they no longer shouldered the responsibility (and financial burden) of their ownership. And no one complained about the lovely compensation received. They were also fortunate that the Robber Baron who had acquired the paintings also acquired many lesser quality ones that although not particularly valuable in the scheme of things were beautiful indeed. So their walls did not go bare.

    My main beef with so much art going to museums is that so much of it sits in storage, never seeing the light of day. I'm happy for the museums to keep the masterpieces, so long as they display them. All the rest should be sent to auction, in my view, where the art will wind up in the houses and apartments of people who will enjoy living with them and seeing them daily. It's a win-win situation in my view, since museums are perpetually strapped for cash and the storage of lesser quality art is a burden to them, too.

    And yes, RL's use of so many portraits of aristocrats of days gone by in his stores can be sickening at times, but one does admire him as a merchant genius. I recommend that you read LPC's posting about the High WASP "take" on Mr. Lauren.

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  14. 24 Corners: Thank you for your comment, and welcome. Reggie is indeed flattered that you spent so much time reading his scribbles. I am working on another Pompey post that I hope you will enjoy, so please stay tuned...

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  15. Thanks you so much for this post. I have a picture of EB on one of my posts ( http://willowbrookpark.blogspot.com/2010/02/gentleman-in-art.html )but had no idea who he was or any of his history. Great to fill in the gaps. David.

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  16. David: Thank you for your comment. I remember your post. You should be sure to visit the Metropolitan when you are next in New York, as the experience of seeing the painting of Elijah Boardman in person (so to speak) is much more impressive than an image of it can convey.

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  17. 1) Edith Hope raises an interesting question -- why don't people who can afford it commission more portraits?

    I think the answer is that there simply aren't enough painters left who can reliably produce a good portrait.

    And to make this point even simpler -- there are virtually no painters left who can produce a high-quality oil copy of an existing portrait.

    2) Deborah Devonshire had the intestinal fortitude to trust her likeness to Lucian Freud, and good for her! But what person in his right mind would pay to have his wife or daughter painted by John Currin? (OK, an extreme example -- give a better example, if you can.)

    3) I have seen people, here and in Europe, produce great sketches. But a great portrait in oil? It's a lost art -- at least as obvious option for rich people. (Has there been a single artist since Sargent who could be commissioned to paint a great portrait? Even one?) I don't think so.

    I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

    (And no, Warhol doesn't count at all.)

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  18. As an artist myself (although not a portraitist) I would venture to say that the reason there are so few great portrait painters these days is the lack of great patrons. It is a kind of cf chicken-and-egg situation, but if no one hires your services there is little compulsion to put in the kind of time necessary to develope one's skills. Talent only goes so far - it is the concentrated practice of skill that allows that talent to be expressed. It is hard work to be an artist, and the poor returs for all but a very select few means that many who once would have shone brightly give up art for mammon (and who can blame them?)

    Hermione Darling

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  19. PS Reggie himself is a good illustration of this conundrum. Had he been born a century earlier he could have even been another Sargent, perhaps. He had tremendous promise as an artist, but the combination of the time (representation is to be scorned) and the lack of reasonable returns steered him into the financial world. He cannot be blamed for this choice, but think of all the artists who have been stillborn, lost to posterity...

    Hermione D.

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  20. Hermione --

    Thanks so much for your very wise remarks.

    I agree that many of today's great portraitists are lost to the world through contingent circumstance, just as so many others managed to come out of nowhere (or more exactly, tiny towns within driving of nowhere) in the Quattrocento.

    You and I also seem to agree that the extraordinary riches produced over the past thirty years by the financial markets and the high-tech industry ought to have induced at least some talented people to stick to their brushes. For whatever reason, that seems not to have happened.

    Frankly, I lament the diversion of artistic talent into the design of ever bigger yachts, ever smaller waistbands, and Daphne Guinness's shoes.

    On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if the world is really poorer because no West or Copley or Sargent or Sully or Peale or Jarvis was here to record the likeness of Dick Fuld.

    P.S. Perhaps Reggie will start illustrating at least some of his posts with apposite pencil drawings. I suspect he needs your encouragement, and to remember that no talent is ever really lost. It's merely misplaced.

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  21. Reggie, darling-Ive read this post at least four times and all the terrific comments, for me-Elijah got the looks in the family and the house did too & HD must be a fabulous sister. pgt

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  22. What a wonderful post!

    Thank you!!!

    These paintings are gorgeous!

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  23. Speaking as a Boardman descendent, I am very glad that this portrait hangs in the Metropolitan. I know of other portraits done for the family that are in boxes or the hands of relatives that don't necessarily appreciate them and certainly don't share them. I can proudly say that my ancestor hangs in the Metropolitan and that he and I have in common a love of dry goods!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Anon, for your comment. I hope that you inherited the looks of your ancestors, a handsome bunch, indeed! Reggie

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