This is a really special American portrait from an important American family. Depicted is Jonathan Bass (1784-1866), descendent of Pilgrim John Alden and second cousin to President John Adams. This portrait descended through the family until 2014. It carries quite a family history, as evidenced by documents provided with the portrait and research conducted both by a late family member and now by me.
As exciting as the family history is the attribution to the Studio of Gilbert Stuart. Except for the hands, the portrait has characteristics of Stuart’s work: (1) the white dot of paint in the iris of the eyes and the tip of the nose to depict light reflection; (2) well-defined lips with a slightly glossy appearance and outline; (3) a shadow defining the side of the nose; (4) the bold brushstrokes; (5) a “dreamy” quality of the striking composition; (6) the placement of a prop in the hand symbolizing the sitter’s placement in society (here education); (7) the chair with red upholstery and light colored (possibly gilded) wood frame; (8) the pose of the body turned slightly away from the viewer with the sitter’s face looking directly at the viewer; (9) the drapery treatment with a view outside the window of blue sky with a dotting of small billowing white clouds; (10) the use of a column around which the drapery panel is slightly wrapped. While Stuart sometimes distinctly painted the clothing details, he often, as here left lace details imprecise with quick bold strokes, adding to what I have always thought of as “the dreamy quality” of some of his work. Stuart was certainly capable of painting hands well but he was also notorious for not finishing paintings. By the time he painted Jonathan Bass in 1811, Stuart’s style had progressed to one where the sitter’s head was more important than the body. One biographer has said, “He painted most of Boston's leading citizens and distinguished visitors. His level of skill remained high, but by and large his compositions became simpler as he concentrated on heads. Bodies are painted simply, sometimes carelessly.” American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/articles/17/17-00839.html, gathered November 14, 2014. Stuart’s concentration on the head also lends to that “dreamy quality” that I see in much of his work. Ultimately, perhaps Stuart was just ready to be done with this painting and quickly finished the hands. Or, perhaps one of the many artists who studied under Stuart finished the hands for him. This may remain a mystery for all of eternity, or scholarship may find the answer to this mystery tomorrow—that’s what I love about early artwork.
A 20th century descendent of Jonathan Bass, Ruth E. Bickert (1912-2001) of Clarence, New York, inherited the portrait and the many family documents which will go with the portrait to the new owner. She set about learning about the sitter and finding an attribution to the artist. An undated newspaper clipping from the North Suburban News discussed Ms. Bickert’s search for answers and included a photo of Mrs. Bickert with this portrait. The article says that two curators from the Albright-Knox Art Museum in Buffalo, New York saw the portrait and made a positive attribution to Stuart. She sent a photo to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston who replied that it could be by Stuart. However, an unnamed expert in Maine who saw a photo told her that attribution to Stuart was doubtful. This century, the thought has been that, except for the hands, the portrait appears to be Stuart’s work. The hands are wherein the dilemma lies. Therefore, I am offering an educated opinion that the painting is from the Studio of Gilbert Stuart. Although I believe that chances are equally as good that Gilbert painted the hands himself but didn’t quite finish them, I am also offering the possibility that parts of the painting (specifically the hands) were painted by a student of Gilbert.
As to the sitter, Jonathan Bass, we have good evidence of his life, thanks to Ms. Bickert keeping family letters together with this portrait and starting the research. Jonathan was born in Braintree, Massachusetts on October 29, 1784 to Samuel and Sally Lawrence Bass. He graduated from Harvard in 1804 and married Harriet A. Baylies (1794-1856) on July 5, 1812. (Historical documents sometimes list her as Harriet Bayes or Bayles.)
I have a wonderful 1866 letter from one of Harriet’s sisters to Harriet’s & Jonathan’s daughter, Sarah. It discusses their 1812 wedding with wonderful detail, including a description of Harriet’s wedding attire:
“The bride was dressed for the times &place superbly. An embroidered and muslin dress – made with ___ body & sleeves – silk lace figured “armlets” or sleeves fitting the arm tight, long white kid gloves shoved down to the length of gauntlets, the sleeves & neck of the dress trimmed with thread lace. White silk stockings & white kid slippers. There was no jewelry or bridal veil or lace pocket handkerchief in those days and yet I suppose the ceremony was just as solemn & binding, as if there had been : And all the presents were of the most useful and necessary articles – bestowed by loving parents, for housekeeping from the articles of bed & bedding to the minute kitchen articles of gridirons & skimmer so that the large mansion was ___ furnished. . . . . The only present of ornament & not utility was a very handsome ring (I forget the stone set in pearls given your mother by your father before marriage? What became of it?” Emphasis in original. I had the help of a textiles historian in reading this letter, but even she cannot make out the word describing the body of the dress. I feel sure it is a particular style and if only we could make it out, we'd have an even better idea of her dress. But, even with the illegility, this is a really wonderful and enlightening letter!
The 1866 letter describes Jonathan and Harriet, “Your father with his fine florid countenance and black eyes, always pronounced fine looking – his education, position in society, his reputed wealth, his family relations, all combined to render it a desirable & eligible match to many – and many older & with more experience would gladly rec’d & accepted an offer of marriage from him. But your mother was then full of life & animation. Always noticeable in a ballroom or party and rather coquettish. Just such a girl as would secure attention and affection from an [sic] bachelor like your father. ___ I remember my astonishment when I ascertained he had serious intentions of matrymony [sic]. The courtship was a short one – not more than three or four months.”
The portrait of Jonathan, taken a year before his marriage, shows just the man described by his future sister-in-law. The 1866 letter is a crowning jewel to this stunning portrait.
Genealogy research indicates that Jonathan studied law for some time after his graduation from Harvard but eventually moved to Braintree, Vermont where he lived as a farmer until his death on February 11, 1866. I have not been able to trace the date of his move to Vermont—the large mansion to which he and his new bride retired in 1812 may have been in Vermont. I just do not know. However, the 1866 letter even describes the first meal at the mansion and the furnishings of the house. Jonathan & Harriet had six children. I don’t have the place of birth for the first child, Harriet Albina Baylies Bass, but the second, William Bass, was born in Vermont in 1816. They had apparently moved to Vermont by that year.
Highlights from Jonathan’s pedigree follow:
Deacon Samuel Bass (c. 1600-1695) emigrated from England to Massachusetts about 1630. He was the first deacon of the church in Braintree, Mass, an office he held for 50 years. In 1641 he represented the town of Braintree in the state legislature. He and his wife Ann Savell Bass (1601-1694) had at least 8 living children. Their son John (1630-1716) married Ruth Alden (1640-1674). She was the daughter of Pilgrim John Alden. Together John & Ruth Bass had at least 7 living children, including son Samuel Bass (1660-1751), who would become the grandfather of our portrait sitter, and daughter Hannah Bass (1667-1705), who would become the grandmother of President John Adams.
The portrait is in extremely good, apparently original condition. It does not appear to have been cleaned and there is definitely no in-painting. It is oil on wood panel—one cleat remains on the reverse and the other is long missing and evidence of the original hide glue remains in its place. The portrait has small specks of brown staining throughout—very hard to see. This could be cleaned if one wanted, but I can’t imagine why one would want to. It is housed in the original water-gilt frame with measures 28” x 24”. Panel size is 24” x 19”. The book within Jonathan’s hands bears a date of 1811.
This is an incredible American portrait from a founding American family, attributed to one of the most important artists of our New Republic.
Barratt, Carrie Rebora, "Faces of a New Nation: American Portraits of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries": The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 61, no. 1 (Summer, 2003).
"Gilbert Stuart", American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/articles/17/17-00839.html,
"Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stua/hd_stua.htm
"Gilbert Stuart (American 1755-1828)", National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/features/slideshows/gilbert-stuart-american-1755-1828.html#
A blog by Senex Magister seems to be a great place to see most of Gilbert Stuart's recorded portraits. http://hoocher.com/Gilbert_Stuart/Gilbert_Stuart.htm