April 2012 - Discussing Joseph Wood

The acquisition of an attractive miniature of a naval officer, see View has been an interesting exercise and led to the decision to write the following brief paper to try to add and share knowledge about a little researched artist.

In the early years of the 19C, the American miniature painter Joseph Wood (1778-1830) was a talented artist working in New York, with Mary Way, herself an accomplished artist writing in 1811; "...Wood, who from what I had heard and seen, I considered the only painter here worth notice." However, there does not appear to have been a careful analysis of the quite numerous miniature portraits attributed to him. The following study suggests some of these are incorrect attributions. The paper attempts to provide a source for more readily identifying the work of Wood, with input or comment from scholars of American miniatures welcomed.

In attempting that process, it has been necessary to cast doubt on a number of miniatures in museum and other collections, including the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museums. It is hoped that the curators at those august institutions will not take offence at the conclusions reached here. Revisions to earlier "good faith" attributions are not intended as a criticism, but more a recognition that scholarship is greatly assisted when multiple examples in colour can be easily compared via the Internet.

Wood was the son of a New York farmer and ran away from home at age 15 to New York City where he became apprenticed to a silversmith. He learned to paint by copying miniatures which had been left with the silversmith for mounting. In 1801 he established himself as an oil portrait and miniature painter. In 1803 he was joined in partnership by John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840) and around that time was also taught more about miniature painting by Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807). The partnership with Jarvis had ended by 1810 and in 1811 Wood took on Nathaniel Rogers (1787-1844) as an apprentice, before moving to Philadelphia in c1813 and Washington c1816-18. During his last years he became noted for a dissolute lifestyle and undertook few commissions. From this brief outline it is clear his main output as a miniature painter was restricted to about 25 years, 1801-c1825.

Given that Wood learned some points from Malbone after 1801, was partnered with Jarvis, and took Rogers on as an apprentice in 1811, there is reason to expect some similarities of style. Malbone is commonly accepted as the pre-eminent American miniature painter, but when one reviews his work as illustrated in The Life and Works of Edward Greene Malbone by Ruel Pardee Tolman, it is apparent that the quality of Malbone's miniatures is very variable. Viewed dispassionately, and in view of his short career, it seems his elevation has been enhanced by his American birth, his self-taught status, and the survival of his account book; with Malbone's better work being executed between his 1801 return from studying in London and his death in 1807. It also follows that, by the time of Malbone's death in 1807, Wood had developed his own style and was no longer subject to changes in that style resulting from comment from Malbone.

With Rogers being an apprentice to Wood, it is to be expected Rogers earlier work from 1811 would be similar to that of Wood, until Wood moved to Philadelphia in 1813 when Rogers could develop his own distinctive style, which is particularly noticeable with the sitter's eyes. According to Dunlap, Rogers commenced by working on the subordinate portions of the miniatures, which after one year Wood paid liberally for. That teacher/apprentice relationship has led to mistakes in attributions as discussed below. The 1813 date is significant, as events associated with the War of 1812 led to a shortage of imported casework together with a decline in commissions for miniature painters generally, so Wood presumably hoped the grass would be greener in Philadelphia.

A relatively large number of portraits have attributed to Wood, but some of them seem doubtful. In seeking a place to start I accessed the Smithsonian collection and immediately ran into difficulties!

Two, which should be benchmark miniatures, are held in the Smithsonian Collection. See Joseph Wood The one with the darker background is of David Livingstone, 73mm x 61mm, said to be c1800, and that with the lighter background is of Master Peters, 68mm x 56mm, is said to date to 1804. They are both attributed to Joseph Wood.

I have to start by saying that I believe they are by different artists. Although the Smithsonian dates the Livingstone portrait to c1800, the foliate case dates it to c1825-1830. The styles are quite different, e.g. the noses and facial tones and colouring, and I believe the miniature of David Livingstone is in fact by Nathaniel Rogers, which also better fits the date of the case.

That conclusion is reached after studying many miniatures by Rogers, including this one by Rogers which is one of nine miniatures by him in this collection, see View The position on the ivory, the style of the face, and the supercilious expression about the eyes are much closer to the Livingstone miniature.

So how can one attribute miniatures to Joseph Wood?

Although artists changed clothing, hair styles, and sometimes background colours to reflect fashion, there were certain aspects of their work that changed less often during their painting careers. These include, the position of the sitter's head on the ivory, the distance the miniature was painted from, i.e. head or bust, and artists also tended to favour sitters to more often face one way, either left or right. As indicated in the comments above, it seems Wood's style had settled by the time of Malbone's death in 1807 and there was no reason for him to significantly change that style.

A question worth posing, is why Wood posed the sitter so relatively low on the ivory? The reason for this is that he was not professionally trained as a miniature painter and also painted large oil portraits where, conventionally, the sitter's head is often about one-third of the distance from the top to the bottom of the picture. Oil portraits also tend to show more of the upper body of the sitter. Hence, what Wood did, in contrast to those who painted mainly miniature portraits, was to depict the sitters in his miniatures in the pose and proportions they would have adopted in his larger oil portraits.

One can often pick American and British miniature portraits copied from large oils, as they tend to demonstrate "oil portrait" proportions, instead of the artist modifying the portrait to fit the miniature format. I commented on two examples of miniatures copied from large oil portraits when discussing incorrect attributions to Walter Robertson at 2008 - Additions and Comment: The Case of Walter Robertson ... They were the two ladies showing here. The older lady is still incorrectly attributed by the Smithsonian to Walter Robertson, see Walter Robertson but cannot be by him as miniatures of this size and shape were not painted by any artists in America, or Britain for that matter, during the time Robertson spent in the United States in c1793-1797. (I need to say I also doubt two other attributions to Walter Robertson by the Smithsonian, those of Captain Joseph Anthony and portrait of a Gentleman, but will aim to discuss them in more detail on another occasion!) My comments also disagreed with an attribution of the younger lady, Mrs Richard Peters (Abigail Willing), to Robertson made by Dale Johnson in her Metropolitan Museum catalogue. The Metropolitan appeared to heed that challenge as in their 2010 catalogue, the attribution to Robertson was amended to an unknown artist.

Another benchmark miniature for Joseph Wood is the one on the left of Commodore Perry which is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The stylistic likeness to Master Peters is far more apparent than with the Livingstone miniature.

Yet another miniature by Wood showing here, but of an unknown sitter, was sold at auction by Bonhams in 2007. The commonality of style is now becoming apparent. Set low on the ivory, with a pale cloudy sky, posed in three-quarter profile, and with a small head relative to the ivory.

Also, in contrast to the Livingstone portrait, the three following miniatures are much closer in style to the Master Peters and Perry portraits and are therefore attributed to Joseph Wood. The positions on the ivory and the cloud effects are similar. The three are all in this Artists and Ancestors collection, two being unidentified sitters and the central one being of Eleutheros Dana Comstock (1791-c1858) and likely painted for his 21st birthday in 1812. The right facing two are 78mm x 60mm, and the left facing Naval officer is 70mm x 57mm. Wood has posed the naval officer facing left, so that his shoulder insignia does not become the focal point of the portrait.

Therefore that is a base of six miniatures with light backgrounds attributed to Joseph Wood, to compare with other miniatures said to by him.

There is at least one other miniature in this collection which is believed to likely be by Wood. It is of an unknown lady and in size is 56mm x 47mm. Although the background is less obvious, the pose and position on the ivory is similar to that of the men. This miniature indicates one aspect where circumstances dictated a modification of Wood's style. Here the background was darkened to provide a contrast with the white dress, otherwise there would have been a overall washed out appearance to the portrait.

In 2009 I noted the miniature depicted below in a "make-do" ebonised frame, was likely by Joseph Wood when it sold on eBay. This is another example where Wood has used a dark background. Even though Wood has made the background made darker, which was necessary in this instance to contrast with the sitter's white hair, the facial appearance and position on the ivory correspond to the other Wood examples above. As an aside, in my opinion the case for this miniature, as showing here, was an important example of make-do Embargo casework, dictated by shortages of British casework supplies during the War, as has been discussed elsewhere, see Case study - The Embargo Act of 1807 and 19C miniature portrait ...

Currently, I see the miniature still remains offered for sale by a well known dealer, but I believe with an erroneous attribution to Malbone, and in an inappropriate ornate replacement case, which dates to 20 years after Malbone's death and about 15 years after the miniature was painted by Wood.

The analysis has then arrived at eight miniature portraits with sufficient similarities that they can be attributed to Wood. One can then compare these with other miniatures said to be by Wood. Such comparisons are much harder when working with black and white images. The first place to look is in Wehle's American Miniatures 1730-1850. Plate XXXVI illustrates two black and white miniatures by Wood, of John Green Proud and of a man. They appear to fit the above criteria and there seems no reason to doubt those attributions.

The next place to look is the Metropolitan Museum catalogue which includes ten miniatures said to be by Wood.

The first Met one, Fig 184, showing here, has a darker background to contrast with the hair, is 52mm x 43mm, and bears a signature, "Jos. Wood pinx. 1805". I am a little uncertain about this one, but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. Thus the attribution of this one to Wood is accepted at this stage.

It is a sad commentary on American miniatures that a well known collector and dealer, Edward Grosvenor Paine (1911-1989), is known to have added signatures to miniatures he had attributed to specific artists. However, modern opinion does not always agree with his attributions, hence signed American miniature need to be approached with caution.

Paine was not the only person who did this, others did often with good intention, but they can be misleading. Hence signed American miniature portraits need to be approached with caution with greater attention paid to the style, than to any signatures on front or the reverse. A recent instance showing the importance of style in attribution, was my research into a portrait of Emily Hinds by John Henry Brown, see View where the artist was initially recognised purely from the style, but then confirmed after locating a signature when the miniature arrived.

The Metropolitan also has a self-portrait by Wood, Fig 187, as showing here, where the pose and background broadly match the above examples, although giving the impression the background was never properly completed.

However, of the others attributed to Wood in the Metropolitan collection, three appear demonstrably to be by another hand. They are Fig 185, Fig 189, and Fig 192 as below. They each place the sitter much higher on the ivory and are painted from a position much closer to the artist, so that the head appears much larger and less of the body is seen. The backgrounds are painted in a different style, with Fig 185 and Fig 189 having a more pointillist background, rather than the broader wash effect of the Wood portraits. Although the centre one, Fig 189 is claimed to be in a replacement frame, the style suggests a British origin.

Thus, despite one of them bearing a signature, "J Wood Pinx. 1812", none of the three are believed to be by Wood. It is not the intent of this paper to categorically propose who they might be by, but more research is obviously needed. As a start point for research, it is suggested that the right hand miniature, Fig 192, is more likely by John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840) as it is very similar in style to several miniatures by Jarvis, in particular, Fig 98, Fig 99, and Fig 100, in John Wesley Jarvis by Harold Dickson. Other possibilities are Henry Inman (1801-1846), who was trained by Jarvis, and Daniel Dickinson (1795-1877), the younger brother of Anson Dickinson.

Another perhaps doubtful attribution in the Metropolitan collection is Fig 186 of Miss Muir. A colour photo of the background may help, but in looking at her portrait it is seen that her nose is almost straight on to the viewer, whereas the other miniatures attributed to Wood show the sitter's nose in three-quarter profile.

[At the risk of upsetting the Metropolitan Museum even further, I feel obliged to question whether their Fig 231, as showing here, is by Nathaniel Rogers. Of the nine miniatures by Nathaniel Rogers in this collection and the nineteen in the Metropolitan collection, a total of 28 miniatures, Fig 231 is the only one whose eyes do not look direct at the artist. For that and other reasons, I doubt Rogers was the artist.]

The Metropolitan miniature, Fig 188, also raises a query. All of the base group of attributions to Wood as above have the sitter looking direct at the artist, whereas the gaze of Fig 188 is directed well to the left of the artist. That leaves only three further Wood attributions in the Metropolitan collection, Fig 190, Fig 191, and Fig 193 which are not shown here. Again, colour images would assist, but these three appear to fit the criteria for Wood; a small head, lowish on the ivory, and a pale background.

Therefore, based upon this analysis, five of the ten miniatures depicted and attributed to Joseph Wood in the Metropolitan Museum collection have question marks raised over the earlier attributions.

Another apparent incorrect attribution to Joseph Wood was a miniature of William Pinkney, sold by Cowan's Auctions in 2003. It was described as attributed to Wood, but to me the quality does not look good enough for his work. Based upon examples in the Metropolitan Museum, such as Fig 161 and Fig 162, and comparisons of the background colours and facial features, I am more inclined to attribute the Pinkney miniature to Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825).

The impression gained from the above analysis is that there has never been a proper study of the work of Joseph Wood. Thus he has become a convenient catch-all attribution for some dealers. For example, there are a couple of miniatures currently offered for sale by dealers with attributions to Joseph Wood, but none of them fit the criteria outlined above. Hence there is little advantage to be gained by depicting them here.

As indicated earlier, comments about this analysis are welcome, in particular further examples by Wood in colour which can allow an even better base for future study.

Later: A kind visitor has sent me images of a group of family miniature portraits which have remained within their family since they were painted. It is wonderful for portraits to remain with families, and for the sitters to be known.

Family tradition had been that all miniatures in the photo, excluding the oval one on the right had been painted by Nathaniel Rogers. However, after looking at the images, I believed the two in black frames were by Joseph Wood, as they closely resemble the other examples of Wood's work shown above. I mentioned this to the owner and observed that confusion between Wood and Rogers was not surprising, because as Dale Johnson has observed, Rogers was apprenticed to Wood from 1811. Dale further commented, "Rogers progressed rapidly and in a short time was painting the secondary areas of miniatures, principally the clothing and background."

The owner of these miniatures then checked the family records and found that the two in black frames were painted in 1810, i.e. before Rogers became an apprentice to Wood. In this instance it is unsurprising that family tradition had attributed all the miniatures to Rogers. The existence of this group of dated and identified miniatures still owned by one family is thus very important evidence supporting the conclusions about style in the above discussion of the work of Joseph Wood.

Also showing here is an image of a miniature sent to me by another kind collector of American miniatures who had been advised by an expert on American miniatures that it was by Joseph Wood. I agree and it is pleasing to have expert endorsement of this as a further attribution to Wood. It matches the style of the other identified examples depicted here and there seems little doubt that the examples presented here are now sufficient in number to provide a good guide for any future attributions of his work.

Later - November 2012 - A visitor to the website has advised as follows;
Joseph Wood was born in Orange County New York on 6 July 1778 and died on 15 June 1830. His father was Ebenezer Wood and mother Margaret Hubbard. His father was not a farmer, he was the first Sheriff of Rockland County. Ebenezer was also a Wagon Master during the Revolutionary War. Margaret was Ebenezer’s second wife. Why do I know all this information? I am the 3X great granddaughter of Captain Benjamin Wood. You are correct that Joseph went to NY to work as apprentice to a silversmith and later to become a portrait painter. 

Joseph had a bother Benjamin who was a few years younger. Ben also went to NYC to become a silversmith. He was successful and his specialty was fiddle head spoons and his mark was B.Wood. During the War of 1812 Ben became a Captain. After the War there was a depression and Ben sold his business to his nephew and went into government service. If you wish to go back even further Joseph’s father is a direct descendent of John Howland from the Mayflower.

We are able to trace all the members of our tree. This is from a book written by the Rev David Cole. As my 3X great grandmother was a Cole and other members of our family married Cole’s we have several chapters in the book. This is the page where it tells you about Ebenezer Wood http://archive.org/stream/isaackoolcoolorc00cole#page/68/mode/2up/search/Ebenezer+wood All the children are traced and this is the page with Joseph Wood the portrait painter (son of Ebenezer Wood and Margaret Hubbard). http://archive.org/stream/isaackoolcoolorc00cole#page/72/mode/2up/search/Ebenezer+wood We believe the portrait of Ebenezer was painted by Joseph. This is the page where there is a painting of my grandfather Benjamin, it is dated April 1815 and it could have been painted by Joseph as well.http://archive.org/stream/isaackoolcoolorc00cole#page/n145/mode/2up/search/Ebenezer+wood

1 comment:

  1. Placing the two miniatures side-by-side of Commodore Perry and an unknown sitter, it strikes me that what we are looking at is two images of the same man; Perry in his undress naval blouse, the other view, taken of his left side, in civilian garb. A comparison of the nose, lips, and eyebrows, let alone the cut of the hair and the similar facial structure, lend me to believe that we are looking at two images of the same man.