Peeling back the years
I was probably 9 or 10 that rainy day when I ventured a peek into my father's studio and decided to have a look around. Father was a commercial artist with a studio in the city, but here at home was his personal bailiwick, where, from time to time, he would paint and where he kept his private collections. I pulled out first one canvas, then another, from the storage racks. Many of the paintings had been done by Father's friends. I remember noticing a scrunched-up scroll of canvas that had been shoved behind a rack. My curiosity was piqued. I stretched an arm into the slots and managed, after considerable tugging and maneuvering, to extricate the sizable roll.
With dusty and scratched arms and hands, I carefully unrolled a canvas as tall as I was and found myself looking into the clear, calm eyes of an elegant young boy. At the risk of triteness I must say that it was love at first sight.
The boy's features were beautifully modeled and so delicately painted that the brushstrokes were hardly visible. His muted red velvet jacket, closed with gleaming brass buttons, was topped with a crisply white lacy collar. His pleated trousers were a soft gray color. In one hand he held a large circular object, like a shield. I guessed that it was a kite, because he had a roll of string in the other hand. In the distant background was a distinctively shaped mountain peak.
The edges of the canvas were rough, and there were some creases where the paint had broken away, but the quality and refinement of the painting made a distinct impression on me. Visually I drank in the exquisite detail of the face and form for long minutes. Then, carefully, if a bit clumsily, I rolled the canvas, tugged open a long drawer in the mammoth bureau Father used for storage, and placed the painting there for safekeeping. At that time I noticed a date and name written with red paint in script o n the reverse of the canvas. These details were filed away in my memory. I never mentioned seeing the painting to my father, because . . . well, I was not supposed to be in that room!
Some years later, after I was married, I asked Dad if my husband and I might have a few paintings to help decorate the antique farmhouse we had just bought. He let us choose. I remembered the boy and opened the bureau, and there was the canvas just where I had placed it long before.
``Oh! Could I have this one?'' I asked hopefully.
Father nodded and said he would fix it up for us. He glued the fragile canvas to Masonite, overpainted the chipped areas, which were mostly around the edges, varnished it, and then framed it with a gilt molding. To our eyes it looked very nice.
The portrait was always, and still is, hung in our dining room and is especially luminous in candlelight. Because of its obvious quality and its size, three feet by four feet, it is often admired.
After our children were raised and married and I had time for such things, I began to be concerned about the condition of the painting. Over the years the background, which was muddy when I first saw it, had become quite dark, though the face and figure remained clear. At last, I put into action that feeling I had had since I first saw it that this painting should be cherished and preserved.
I made inquiries and in time found a marvelous conservation laboratory. It took months of scrupulous and painstaking work, using the latest techniques, to bring the portrait to original condition.
What a delightful experience it is to see a beloved old painting rejuvenated! From those muddy depths had emerged all sorts of lovely items. A column with a sundial on the boy's right was covered with a feathery vine. At his feet lay a black derby hat with velvety plume and shiny silver buckle and lined in bright green. The leather boots, which had been overpainted, were trim and gleaming. To the boy's left was a sylvan lake with a waterfall and behind him a woodsy glen with the suggestion of a church s pire. All that delicious detail which I had never seen before!
The conservators pointed out to me a rough-textured curved line which is just barely discernible running through the boy's jacket. When examined under infrared light, it appeared to be part of a hoop which the artist had originally painted and then changed.
It would seem that finding all this new beauty in a painting would be enough good fortune, but there was more to come. The conservators had, of course, uncovered the artist's name and the date when they removed the Masonite backing. The inscription reads ``J. A. Haskell, 1852 -- pinxt.''
The following reference to Haskell was found in the ``New York Historical Society Dictionary of American Artists, 1564-1860,'' by G. Grole and D. Wallace:Haskell, Joseph Allen (1808-1894) Portrait painter, born December 8, 1808 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was painting in Troy, New York as early as 1829. In 1831 he moved to New York City where he had his studio for twelve years, during which time he exhibited at the National and American Academies. In 1844 he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan and in 1846
he was painting in Marshall, Michigan. Later he returned to New York settling in Syracuse where he died in 1894.
I spent a fascinating afternoon at the New York Historical Society poring over programs of various shows sponsored by the American Academy of Art and the rival National Academy of Art, in both of which Joseph Haskell exhibited. He was in distinguished company -- Samuel F. B. Morse, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, and so on. Thus was I introduced to an era of painting that was new to me.
The Hudson River School of painters were the first recognized American fine artists who painted American scenes. Their standards of craftsmanship were high and they were inspired by the competition and by the acclaim they were receiving. Many of them had early training as engravers, which strengthened their drawing skills.
I think I see that engraving quality in the handling of the kite tail in my Haskell painting. The academic structure in the painting's composition is easily observable. There is a strong triangular form in the line from head to hat, where you are drawn by the green of the lining, to kite and back to head. There is a nice repetition of line and form: the bottom of the boy's jacket, the kite string, and the mountain peak; the matching curve of the column and the boy's shoulder; the sturdy tree echoing the
I researched clothing styles for children in the mid-1800s. My boy was right on target as a well-dressed young gentleman.
While in New York my daughter and I went to Sotheby's auction house to see a presale exhibit of 18th- and 19th-century American painting. There were no Haskells among them, but I did add to my store of knowledge of American portraiture.
As businessmen, the portrait artists of the 19th century often painted figures and backgrounds on canvases in advance, using the actual model only for the head and features. This saved time for the purchaser and put less pressure on the artist. In their spare time artists could paint up a nice supply of figures and backgrounds from which customers might choose. It could have been good merchandising, for the prospective client would have a better idea of what he was buying. Alterations could easily be made to suit special needs. I suspect a client might even choose to upgrade his milieu.
I see evidence of all the above factors in my painting. For one thing, the setting is rustically beautiful, though it does not resemble Michigan terrain. For another, the original hoop was painted out and a kite inserted., as was mentioned earlier. The lad's outfit is rather dressy for kite-flying. Also, the maturity of the boy's face does not quite match the more juvenile body, so it is difficult to determine the boy's probable age.
This last characteristic is obvious in many early portraits. In some cases the heads and bodies are decidedly mismatched. It has been suggested that this was done when several figures were included in a single painting so that the features could be plainly seen.
The experience at Sotheby's sharpened my interest. I found myself wanting to find another Haskell portrait. The artist was an accomplished and recognized portraitist. Surely there must be other pieces of his work somewhere in this wide world. I had the names of some of his customers in the 1830s, but they would hardly be listed in the current phone directory. One day my cousin called to tell me she had received an announcement of the Annual Historic Homes Tour in Marshall, Mich. She thought it would be fun to see if we could track down a Haskell. We had already spent a day of searching in Ann Arbor.
Armed with my photographs and my story about Joseph Haskell, she and I proceeded to Marshall. Rather late in the day I had the good fortune to corral John Collins, one of the organizers of the tour and also president of the Michigan Historical Society. In spite of his many preoccupations that day, he graciously took time to look at the photographs and to listen to my tale. And what's more he said, ``Well,'' he said,``I know of a painting of that quality that is of a Mary Haskell.''
Oh joy! With his direction I was able to contact the owners of the painting. It was a special thrill to look at the portrait, see the same qualities and the same signature on the reverse. This painting was inscribed: J. A. Haskell, pinxt. Marshall, Mich. Dec. 17, 1847
We all thought we could see a resemblance between the young woman with her dark eyes and the boy. Since Mary Haskell was not wearing a wedding band, we could only guess at their relationship, if any. My new friends suggested that I research the Marshall genealogical records in Kalamazoo. I may do that someday.
Meanwhile I learned why Joseph Haskell and other New York artists had gone west. Michigan in the 1830s was considering statehood, and it was thought that Marshall might be the capital. The rumor was reinforced when the New York Central Railroad was routed through Marshall. Many New York families sent their sons there to ``get in on the ground floor'' by buying up land and establishing businesses in the young settlement. At least one branch of the Haskell family was among these early developers. It must have been something of a shock when the capital was actually placed in Lansing, some distance to the north!
Fine works of art are enriching in special ways. Joseph Haskell's ``Portrait of a Boy with a Kite'' has brought to me beauty, refinement, discoveries. In return I have been privileged to preserve this lovely example of Americana for the enjoyment of generations to come.