|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
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