Among the many portraits in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s online exhibition “What’s in a Portrait?” are a number of portraits of couples. Similar to other types of portraiture, these works convey meaning about what the sitters valued. Couple portraits were commissioned by married or betrothed couples to honor their union, or document other family events. Pictured here are two beguiling examples.
The first example is the charming watercolor above, which at 5 by 8 inches qualifies (somewhat paradoxically) as a large miniature portrait. Depicting subjects identified as Mr. J. and Mrs. M. Hull, the work likely dates to 1800. Although its maker and place of creation are not known, the portrait still conveys information about the sitters: for example, the pair’s union is emphasized—even romanticized—through decorative flourishes such as the entwined lovebirds at the top center of the painting and the identical beribboned wreaths encircling the two images. The importance of Mr. Hull’s identification as a Freemason is also conveyed in the carefully detailed representation of his jewel, sash, and apron.
A second example, from 1804, appears below: two matching paintings by artist Benjamin Greenleaf (1769-1821), who worked in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Depicting Captain Aaron Bird (1756-1822) and his wife, Johanna Glover Bird (1757-1815), these 12-by-16-inch portraits are unified stylistically by their dark backgrounds and the similar clothing of their subjects—dark outerwear with white at the neck anchored by small gold pins. The pin that Captain Bird is wearing, which bears a square and compasses, shows that he was a Freemason. Bird hailed from Dorchester, Massachusetts, and was not only a Revolutionary War lieutenant but also a founding member of two Maine lodges—Cumberland Lodge No. 12 in New Gloucester, and later, Tranquil Lodge No. 29 in Minot.
Both of these works also exemplify the American folk art aesthetic in their sharply delineated forms, tidily organized compositions, and overall one-dimensionality of style. For all these similarities, they present contrasting atmospheres. This may be partly due to the artistic media the painters who made them employed. Greenleaf painted the Bird portraits in oil paint on pine board, creating a shiny, nonporous surface. He also selected black and white tones with a stark contrast. His treatment differs from that of the artist who painted the Hulls. This painter employed soft watercolors on light-absorbing matte paper, accompanied by airy imagery of birds and leaves.
You can explore more portraits from the collection on our website while the Museum & Library is closed due to the safer-at-home advisory in Massachusetts. We also invite you to join us on Facebook and check out our other online exhibitions and online collections. As always, we welcome your comments below.
Carrie Rebora Barratt. “Nineteenth-Century American Folk Art.” October 2004. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © 2000-2020. Accessed May 19, 2020 at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/afkp/hd_afkp.htm.
Andrew Graham-Dixon. “Man and wife—the greatest marriage portraits in art history.” December 14, 2018. Christie’s, © 2020. Accessed May 19, 2020 at https://www.christies.com/features/Andrew-Graham-Dixon-on-marriage-portraits-9594-1.aspx