"What's in a Portrait?"

A Maine Mason at Sea

In 1852, shipbuilders in Calais, Maine, near the American border with Canada, launched a ship named the Lincoln. The following year, the Lincoln would commemorate American Independence Day many miles from Maine, in the Aegean port of Smyrna, Greece (now İzmir, Turkey). Like the Lincoln, her captain that day left his Maine home to make a living in the maritime world of the nineteenth century.

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Bark Lincoln, W.H. Polleys Master Laying at Anchor in Smyrna July 4th 1853. Raffaele Corsini, Smyrna, Greece. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, 85.9.

In this watercolor, acquired by the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in 1985, the Lincoln is shown lying at anchor in the foreground, with the city, its castle, and surrounding hills in the background. The ship bears four flags: from bow to stern, the “Union Jack” or Navy Jack, a blue flag with a Masonic square and compasses, a masthead pennant, and an American flag. The Lincoln’s Union Jack, a blue flag with white stars flown on American ships, appears to have twenty-six stars and her American flag twenty-one stars. Given that the United States had thirty-one states by 1853, perhaps the ship’s owners or captain had not updated her flags or, more likely, the painter took artistic license with these details.

It is believed that ship’s captains sometimes raised a flag bearing a square and compasses to invite Masons in the area aboard their vessel. To local residents and other mariners, this signaled his fraternal affiliation and served as an invitation for conversation, informal meetings, and trade. The Lincoln was in Smyrna in July 1853 to purchase opium, a common ingredient in American patent medicines at the time.

The Lincoln’s captain and 1/16 share owner for her first five years was Woodbury H. Polleys. Polleys was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine in 1817 and raised in Portland Lodge No. 1 in 1844. When he took command of the ship, he had been, as he later wrote in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, “at sea as Master of a Ship since June 1848, principally trading between Europe & southern ports . . .”

After the Lincoln, Polleys went on to captain other vessels, including at least three Union ships during the Civil War. These included the USS Katahdin, USS Oleander, and USS Madgie. The latter two ships were part of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, preventing Confederate vessels from eluding the Union trade blockade. After the Madgie sank off North Carolina in 1863, Polleys traveled north to Maine for a month’s leave “to procure a new outfit and visit my family.”

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Polleys used his knowledge of international trade to serve the new United States as Consul to Barbados and Commercial Agent to Cuba. Woodbury H. Polleys died of suicide in 1885 and is buried in Portland’s Pine Grove Cemetery. His headstone bears a Masonic square and compasses, as his ship’s flag did that day in 1853, many miles from Maine.

If you want to dive into this piece of artwork further, you can visit it and many others in our exhibition, “What’s in a Portrait?,” now on view at the Museum & Library. You can also visit the online version of the exhibition.

Further Reading:


Well Matched: Masonic Portraits of Couples

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.

Mr. J. and Mrs. M. Hull, ca. 1800.
Mr. J. and Mrs. M. Hull, ca. 1800. United States. Special Acquisitions Fund, 78.47a.

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.

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Johanna Glover Bird and Captain Aaron Bird, 1804. Benjamin Greenleaf (1769-1821). Massachusetts or Maine. Museum Purchase, 98.064.1-2.

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.

 

References:

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

 


"What's in a Portrait?"

Portrait
Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Patriarchs Militant, 1870-1900 United States Gift of Jacques Noel Jacobson Jr., 86.60.4.

The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library invites you to explore our new online exhibition, “What’s in a Portrait?,” now available on our website. This exhibition includes paintings, prints, and photographs from the gallery exhibition, "What's in a Portrait?," which will be opening at the Museum & Library in the coming months.

Since the formation of organized Freemasonry in the early 1700s, many men have taken pride in their association with it and other fraternal groups. In the 1800s and 1900s, many Masons commissioned portraits of themselves and, in them, chose to be presented as members of the fraternity, wearing jewelry or regalia that identified them as Masons. Some of these portraits marked personal achievements, such as election or appointment to a lodge office. Other images celebrated lodge events, like a new slate of officers or a summer excursion. "What's in a Portrait?" features portraits from the collection that help tell the story of the many people who participated in and shaped Masonic and fraternal organizations in the United States for over two hundred years.

The Museum & Library is currently closed to the public due to a state mandated stay-at-home advisory. We will keep you posted about Museum re-opening dates via our website, Facebook, and Instagram. In the meantime, visit our website to see more online exhibitions and collections.  If you have any questions or comments about "What's in a Portrait?," let us know in the comment box below or email us at [info@srmml.org]--we would love to hear from you!