April - Miniature portrait of Benjamin West

Recently I was contacted by an advertising company wanting me to show advertisements for their client on this website. Although any advertising income would be very welcome indeed, I declined so as to try and keep the website uncluttered.

However, if there is any wealthy visitor who is willing to donate money or miniature portraits to assist me with improving this collection and adding to the research, I would love to hear from them via my email contact under "View my complete profile".

I could have used such fairy godmother assistance this week with a miniature where I bid several times more than I could comfortably afford, but was regretfully still the under-bidder.

Although, unsuccessful at the auction, I thought visitors might be interested in my following research into the miniature.

The miniature portrait is an excellent example of how rare items and bargains can be still be found. It is one of the most important American miniature discovered this century and no doubt will be sold to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts for a very high price.

Granted, the sale price of $5250 may not sound like a bargain for a cracked miniature! - but I believe it is worth many times what the winning bidder paid, maybe $30,000 to $50,000. The winner being a well known Philadelphia art dealer.

The miniature was well described as by John Robinson, dated 1816, and of the famous American painter Benjamin West. It is signed with the initials "J R 1816".

John Robinson (1774-1829) was an English artist who moved to America. His work is uncommon. There is a miniature in the Gibbes Art Museum which is claimed to be by him, but to me it looks more continental in style.

Robinson wrote a full description of one of West's major works, "A Description of, And Critical Remarks on the Picture of Christ Healing The Sick in the Temple", see Intersections: Narrative, Allegory and History

Benjamin West (Oct 10 1738–Mar 11 1820) was an Anglo-American painter of historical scenes around and after the time of the American War of Independence. He is probably the most famous American painter of the era. Although born in the United States he spent much of his life in England and was President of the Royal Academy from 1792 until 1820, apart from a brief period in 1806.

It is interesting to compare this self-portrait, a large oil, by Benjamin West which is in the National Museum of American Art. West painted it in 1819, three years after the miniature by Robinson. The sitter is obviously the same, but West has painted himself as a distinguished gentleman, whereas Robinson has painted West looking tired and somewhat demoralised.

Many American artists studied under West in London, including Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, and Thomas Sully. For more see, Benjamin West - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The provenance of this miniature is impeccable.

In the 19C William Dunlap wrote his major work "History of the Arts of Design in the United States". A second edition of this was published much later in 1918.

On page 173 of volume III, there is the following comment by Dunlap; "Mr Robinson was a miniature painter of some skill, who came from London and resided in Philadelphia for some years. He showed me a miniature of Mr West, for which he said the old gentleman sat, and in the background he represented a part of West's great picture of "Christ Rejected". He came to America after 1817. He was then a man advanced in life, and he died about 1829."

A study for "Christ Rejected" is shown here which belongs to the University of Rochester, see Art Gallery of the University of Rochester and Christ can be seen left of centre.

It is reported that GBP10,000 was offered at one time (I do not know if this was in 1817!) but declined for "Christ Rejected" which West gifted to the Pennsylvania Hospital. The original is now in the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

There are various labels on the reverse of the miniature, including a framer's label for James E McClees of 1505 Walnut Street, Philadelphia.

The existence of the apparently original inscription by John Robinson on the reverse, suggests that the inner portion of the frame is original, with the outer frame replaced at a later date.

James McClees established his gallery in 1845 and later became a dealer and collector of paintings. Thus he may have reframed it for the owner or perhaps sold the miniature to the Yocum family.

The gallery is still in existence, see McClees Galleries - History

There appears to be an original pencil inscription by John Robinson which must refer to the miniature being loaned to the Pennsylvania Hospital for display at some stage, probably at the time "Christ Rejected" was gifted to the hospital in 1817.

The inscription is hard to read, but appears to say; "This portrait of Benjamin West Esq. is lent to the manager of the hospital to be (???) John Robinson, Philadelphia, Nov 3rd, 1817."

Another label appears to read; "Portrait of Benjamin West by John Robinson. Loaned by Miss F Yocum 747 South Broad St." This probably refers to the miniature being loaned on a second occasion.

The name Yocum is a very old name in Philadelphia and there is a street named for the family.

The last label appears to read; "Property of Susan Foulke Yocum II. Left her by her Great Aunt Frances Corson? Yocum."

Susan Foulke Yocum or her mother, is probably the Susan Foulke Yocum recorded as graduating with a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1935 and a first female member of the women's section of the Delta Chapter. However, I have not researched the family more closely.

Comment should also be made on the condition of the miniature. The ivory is very large at 145mm x 195mm and somewhat faded. As a consequence of the ivory drying out, it has cracked in several places as can be seen, but fortunately not on the figure itself.

It is possible for a restorer to remedy this damage, probably by filling and retouching the affected areas, and given the rarity of the item, I do not think it detracts from the value to any great degree.

You can imagine from reading the above I was very disappointed to be the under-bidder, but congratulations to the winner!

As an aside, this is the second time time I have missed out on a miniature referred to in Dunlap. The other occasion was about four years ago when I saw a country auction advertising a miniature inscribed as a self-portrait by William Dunlap himself.

I looked in Dunlap and found it was the original for this engraving facing page 288 of volume I. With the source confirmed, I again bid more than I could afford, but it sold for about $10,000 and the dealer who bought it later resold it to an institution, no doubt for much more!

I can only hope "third time lucky" at some stage!

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