Classic American watercolor folk portrait of Maria Siegfried attributed to The Reading Artist. The identity of the Reading Artist has not yet been discovered. Only a few more than 35 paintings have been discovered. The artist was active in the counties of Berks and Lebanon in Pennsylvania, circa 1845-1850. Sitters were almost exclusively from the German-speaking communities and are usually identified by a Gothic or Fraktur-like script below the sitter who is always painted within a triple, double or single inked border. Some portraits inscriptions include other information, such as birth and baptism. Like many other well-known folk artists, the Reading Artist developed and used a formula for the portraits. Full-length sitters were standing or sitting. Three-quarter length sitters were seated. Indoor portraits usually place the sitter near a multipaned window with drapery, patterned walls and carpets. Seated figures generally have their hands folded but some hold a book or newspaper. Chairs are sometimes paint decorated. Outdoor portraits usually have landscaping such as stone houses, fences, churches and billowy clouds. The backgrounds and accessories are colorful and full of pattern and details. Generally the sitters have broad faces and very tiny feet. In 2014, Sotheby’s sold a portrait by this artist for $12,500.
Maria Siegfried is not an unusual name from 19th century Pennsylvania and many of them turned up in my genealogy research. I believe (but am not sure) that this Maria Siegfried was born in Maxatawny Township in April 1785 to Henrich and Elizabeth (Kutz) Siegfried. Father, Heinrich “Henry” was a private in the Revolutionary War. Maria married Johannes “John” Metzger in 1805. They had at least two children, Elias and Nathan, who were born in Lehigh County. Maria and John both died in Egypt, Lehigh County, PA.
In this portrait, Maria sits in a chair, before a multipaned window with salmon-colored drapery with yellow fringe. The wall has a lovely pattern of the same color as the drapes. It is a classic stencil design, but considering the diamond outline to each design, it probably depicts wallpaper. The floor is covered with a carpet or the floor itself is painted with a diamond pattern of salmon and blue. Maria wears a brown dress with “Victoria” sleeves. She wears a black apron. Her black pèlerine has a diamond pattern to the fabric and is wide and demure enough to almost be considered a shawl. It is edged with a white border and has white flowers on each tip. Maria also wears a white bonnet, tied under her chin with a black ribbon. Her hands are folded in her lap and her tiny feet peek out from the hem of her dress. The painting is from the collection of the late J. Jefferson Miller II and Anne Weiler Miller. Jeff Miller was a lawyer turned museum curator. After practicing law for 12 years and having a family, he completed Winterthur’s Program in American Material Culture, getting a master’s degree from the University of Delaware. He curated glass and ceramics for the Smithsonian. Upon retiring from the Smithsonian, Jeff Miller was director of the Baltimore Historical Society and on the committee of several art and historical organization, a member of the American Folk Art Society and the American Ceramic Society. Jeff and Anne were major collectors of folk art, ceramics, textiles, paintings, wrought iron, decorated boxes, delft punch bowls, Liverpool pitchers and furniture. They bought items with stories that also had great visual appeal. According to Miller’s meticulous records, they bought this portrait at Pook & Pook on May 12, 2005. The purchase was just a few months before Jeff passed, so their collection was already very full and this portrait had to hold a great appeal to them despite the few condition issues.
The portrait is on wove paper, has all-over toning and has been trimmed just outside of its ink border. There is a bit of paper loss beyond the trimming on the left side. It has been conservation mounted with tabs in the corners instead of any type of gluing. It is mounted onto an acid-free matboard that is a wonderful match for the salmon-color used in the portrait. The portrait is housed in a period red painted frame of original size with a twisted wire hanger. The framed size is 13” x 10 ¼”, sight size is 10” x 7 ¼” and the size of the paper is 9” x 6”.
This is a wonderful example of American folk art from a very scarce and well-collected artist and from a very important collection.
Provenance: Collection of the late J Jefferson and Anne Weiler Miller.