A previously unstudied pair of portrait miniatures offers insight into the artistic technique of American portrait artist Benjamin Greenleaf (Figs. 1, 2). The likenesses, representing Laurentia Briggs and her husband, Horace Collamore, at or around the time of their marriage in 1814, are the first miniatures attributed to Greenleaf, as well as the first reverse-painted miniatures on glass credited to any American miniaturist of this period.1 The Collamores were married in Pembroke, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, on September 20, 1814. Research into their whereabouts in the Boston area during this period, technical aspects of the reverse-glass-painted images, and even the framing solidify the attribution to Greenleaf.
American or not?
The oldest surviving reverse paintings on glass in the West date from the second half of the thirteenth century. While portraits and scenic paintings in the medium were popular in Europe and Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were rare in America during the period. For the most part, the technique was used for panels on wall clocks produced by such makers as the Willard family of Massachusetts, and for decoration on looking glasses painted by John Ritto Penniman while employed by carver and gilder John Doggett in Roxbury and Boston, Massachusetts.
Horace Collamore and his older brother Gilman were importers and retailers in Boston, dealing in dry goods, glassware, and china shipped predominantly from England. The firm of Hastings and Collamore, cofounded by Gilman and Joseph S. Hastings and located at 31 Marlboro Street, advertised the sale of “Crockery, Glass and China” as early as 1810 in various Boston newspapers. Horace Collamore trained under his brother in 1811, but had established his own business as an independent merchant by 1812.
There is ample evidence that Gilman Collamore frequently traveled to England between 1810 and 1820, the year he retired. He also introduced his younger brother, by letter, to suppliers in London and Staffordshire. However, a review of Horace Collamore’s account books between 1814 and 1818 reveals that he did not travel outside the country during this time, indicating a likely American, probably Boston area, origin for the likenesses.2
The miniatures are presumably either wedding images or were painted early in the couple’s married life. In a letter dated September 11, 1814, days before their wedding, Laurentia Briggs wrote to Horace in Boston, mentioning “taking up house-keeping” there immediately,3 further indication of the couple’s presence in the Boston vicinity at the time the portraits were painted.
The separate eglomise plates covering each portrait are characteristic of American design and rendering of the period, as typified by those used by Rufus Porter from the early 1820s to the 1830s. The framing (discussed below) further supports an American attribution.
Making an attribution
Although folk portraiture was common throughout Massachusetts in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, very few artists utilized the reverse-painting-on-glass technique for portraiture. In fact, in the years between 1800 and 1820, only one artist in New England who did so has come to light–Benjamin Greenleaf, who traveled around Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine between 1803 and 1818.
Once confused with the nineteenth-century educator and author of the same name from Haverhill and then Bradford, Massachusetts, Benjamin Greenleaf the artist—born January 13, 1769, in Hull, Massachusetts—was
correctly identified by researchers Arthur and Sybil Kern in the early 1980s.4 They pinpointed fifty-six portraits by the artist, most of them on glass, and described the hallmarks of his style: “they are of bust length . . . and stand out sharply against the black, dark green or brown background . . . a prominent nose with the rim of the nostril outlined distinctly, a diagonal line at the corner of the mouth and a more vertical one extending down the front end of the lower eyelid, narrow, tightly-compressed lips, a round, slightly receding chin, a definite line marking the inner edge of the rim of the ear and a heart-shaped ear opening.”5 The portrait miniatures of Horace and Laurentia Collamore exhibit these characteristics, as is clearly evident when comparing an enlarged detail of the portrait of Horace with Greenleaf’s likeness of Benjamin Wiggin Chase (Figs. 5, 6).
Greenleaf was in the Boston area as early as 1803. Works dating between that year and 1812 have been documented from Hingham, Braintree, and Newton, while a portrait of Deacon Elnathan Bates was completed in nearby Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1815. Greenleaf was present in Boston proper in 1817, when he produced portraits of Mary Ann Cushing Nichols (inscribed on the back, “at Boston July the 17, 1817”) and a Miss Crowninshield, and a painting entitled Girl with Flowers.6
Techniques of reverse painting on glass
It is the particular reverse-painting technique displayed in these portraits that solidifies the attribution to Greenleaf. Why he utilized such a fragile medium and how he learned his specific technique remain unanswered questions. What is clear is that his technique, here discussed for the first time, was unusual in America.
A study carried out by Winterthur Museum scholars in the fall of 2007 contrasts “Western,” by which they later clarified they meant American, reverse paintings on glass with the museum’s Chinese examples made for the American market.7 The authors describe the typical American process as: “paint was applied methodically, from foreground to background, and highlight to shadow, in thick layers. Viewed from the back, or painted side, the image often bears little resemblance to what the viewer sees on the front.” In contrast, “the Chinese reverse glass paintings we examined were created with thin, translucent paint layers. Highlights and shadows are painted in the same plane. As a result, the images appear equally detailed when viewed from the front or the back.” Interestingly, this description of the Chinese method is mirrored in Frieder Ryser’s description of one of the categories of application of color seen in his famed collection of mostly European reverse paintings on glass: “subsequent layers of color show through those painted before.”8
The back—that is, the painted side—of authenticated large-scale portraits on glass by Greenleaf reveal that the images are equally detailed when viewed from front or back (Figs. 7, 8). As in the Chinese style described in the Winterthur study, and on many European examples discussed by Ryser, the paint layers are thin, with overlying features of a “translucent” quality. Similarly, the facial modeling, while more substantially layered, retains the same translucent effect. Opaque color application is limited only to the contrasting background. Thus, Greenleaf utilized a combination of the translucent Chinese/European technique for his images and the more typical American use of thick color application for his backgrounds.
By backlighting the front and back (painted) sides of Greenleaf ’s portrait of Mrs. Joseph Pope we can get a closer look at his overall technique, specifically: the use of varying shades of thin paint overlay for skin tones, compartmentalized translucent color applied to achieve the detailed lace pattern, and an opaque background framing the image (Figs. 7a, 8a). The portraits of Horace and Laurentia Collamore display the same methods of paint application as seen on the large-scale portraits (Figs. 11, 12).
Framing as evidence
The frames on the Collamore miniatures, although not an exact match, are atypical for American portrait miniature frames. In contrast to the dimensions of most period examples, the framing of this pair suggests the use of stock normally used for framing full-size images. In particular, the gilded frame around Horace’s portrait, which contains an applied twisted-rope molding, has an oversize facing width of 1 7/16 inches and a depth of 1 3/8 inches (Fig. 9)—virtually identical to the framing on five full-size Greenleaf portraits (see Fig. 10).9
The production of these frames can be traced to the Boston area, almost certainly to John Doggett.10 The Greenleaf frames match those attributed to Doggett surrounding a needlework picture wrought by Mary S. Crafts at Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach’s Academy, in nearby Dorchester, Massachusetts (Winterthur Museum) and Aurora, a silk embroidery worked by Abigail Eddy that bears the label “Peter Grinnell and Son, Providence, 1813” (Newark Museum). Scholar Betty Ring pointed out that the Grinnells were among the many merchants who probably bought “looking glasses on commission” from Doggett.11 That Doggett also provided the Grinnells with other framing supplies is suggested by his November 8, 1809, sale to them of 150 feet “Reflector #3.”12
Taken altogether, the specific painting process and the framing of the Collamore portrait miniatures place them securely within the canon of Benjamin Greenleaf ’s work. Their unusual medium and distinctive technique make them unique.
1 The portraits were sold at Northeast Auctions in August 2014, listed as “A pair of miniature reverse paintings on glass of Laurentia Briggs and a young man, presumably her husband, Horace Collamore, of Pembroke, Massachusetts, circa 1815.” The identity of Horace is confirmed by an 1813 oil on panel portrait of him by Ethan Allen Greenwood in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the three-quarter profile view of which bears a striking resemblance to the Collamore miniature.
2 Collamore Family Papers, Old Sturbridge Village Research Library, Sturbridge, Massachusetts.
3 Laurentia Briggs, Pembroke, Massachusetts, to Horace Collamore, September 11, 1814, Collamore Family Papers.
4 Arthur B. and Sybil B. Kern, “Who Was Benjamin Greenleaf?” Antiques World, September 1981, pp. 38–46.
5 Arthur B. and Sybil B. Kern, “Benjamin Greenleaf: Nineteenth Century Portrait Painter,” Clarion, Spring–Summer 1985, p. 44.
7 Mary McGinn, Anne Verplanck, et al., “Reverse Painting on Glass,” Antiques and Fine Art, Winter–Spring 2010, p. 281. In an email dated June 10, 2018, Anne Verplanck wrote me, after discussion with Mary McGinn: “We were indeed referring to American works. We should add that our understanding of reverse painting for various purposes was based on our collective understanding of American decorative arts, rather than specifically the Winterthur collection.”
8 Frieder Ryser, Reverse Paintings on Glass: The Ryser Collection…, ed. and trans. Rudy Eswarin (Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 1992), p. 38.
9 Identical frames with virtually the same dimensions are found on portraits of the Reverend Joseph Pope and Mrs. Joseph Pope (Anna Hammond) (Old Sturbridge Village); Parker McCobb and Rebecca Hill McCobb (Maine Historical Society, Portland); and Henry Bromfield McCobb (location unknown).
10 Richard C. Nylander, “Framing the Interior: The Entrepreneurial Career of John Doggett,” in Boston Furniture, 1700–1900, ed. Brock Jobe and Gerald W. R. Ward, Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 88 (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2016), p. 298.
11 Betty Ring, “Peter Grinnell and Son: Merchant-craftsmen of Providence, Rhode Island,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 117, no. 1 (January 1980), p. 215.
12 Ibid., p. 219, n. 22, citing Doggett’s daybook, December 4, 1802–December 8, 1809, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. In consultation with a number of antique frame experts, it is assumed that the “150 feet” of material refers to pre-milled, uncut framing stock; “Reflector #3” has as yet no historical documentation, but likely refers to a gilding type used to decorate frames at the time.
BRIAN EHRLICH is an independent researcher who lives, works, and writes in southeastern Connecticut.