Six Choices for the Sitter
During the first half of the nineteenth century, in the years before photography became commonplace, itinerant painters earned a living by traveling between the cities and towns of America painting portraits of the populace. Sometimes, they found enough employment to stay in a particular location for years, but more often they found it necessary to keep moving. Many of these artists enhanced their employment by advertising a variety of portrait styles, including silhouettes, miniatures, and sometimes, any object that needed painting.
Some itinerant artists offered clients a variety of styles and options for their likenesses. As such, it can be challenging to match unsigned and undocumented works to particular artists as the finished images can have very different appearances. We recently encountered works of one such artist who broadened his appeal by offering miniature profile portraits in a variety of styles and whose work could easily be attributed to different hands. However, either his signature or a printed trade label glued to the portrait's reverse, establish that these portraits are all the work of one individual, J. H. Gillespie. Although many folk art collectors have acquired examples of his charming watercolor profile portraits, little has been written about this artist. Our research provides new information on this painter, including his first name: James. Through his newspaper advertisements and city directories, we have traced his route along the eastern seaboard. We categorize six distinct portrait styles based on, at least partially, the artist's own descriptions of the portrait types he offered and the range of prices.
J. H. Gillespie was born in England in 1793. He began a career as a miniature portrait painter and silhouettist perhaps as early as 1810, although the earliest dated example we have located is from 1816.1 Gillespie had an advertising handbill printed sometime between 1818 and 1820 in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England, where he described himself as a 'Profile painter, and a drawing master,' as well as a seller of frames for miniatures, and offered 'Profiles neatly finished, in imitation of Bronzed busts, or shaded in water colours...Children in colours, and full-length, 5s. and 7s. 6d....Likenesses, with the features neatly shaded on Black grounds, in imitation of Copper-Plate busts, at 5s. each.'2 In a later advertisement, Gillespie claimed he was a successful portrait painter in the major cities of London, Liverpool, and Edinburgh, but he probably rarely stayed in one location for very long, as his portraits from the 1810s and 1820s represent sitters from small towns throughout Britain.
In his mid-thirties, Gillespie moved to Canada, settling in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a newspaper announcement dated November 8, 1828, and published in the Arcadian Recorder of February 28, 1829, the artist described his 'patronage entirely unprecedented to this place.' Because of the demand, he took the outlines of his sitters in the morning and then spent the rest of the day completing the portraits. In another 1829 Halifax advertisement, Gillespie offered four portrait styles at different prices: 25 cents for a plain black profile or silhouette, 50 cents for a portrait shaded in black, $1 for a portrait with bronze finishing, and $2 for 'features neatly painted in colours.' These portraits were achieved with 'several mechanical and optical instruments.'3
In 1830, Gillespie moved to Saint John, New Brunswick, where he advertised in the New Brunswick Courier, that 'At Halifax (N.S.) he lately Painted upwards of 1,400 Likenesses'. He invites the public to visit his 'painting room...where his very curious and elegant apparatus (by which he has taken the Likeness of upwards of 30,000 persons) may be examined and where specimens may be seen.' He 'detains the person sitting only ten minutes - Paints the Features and Drapery neatly in Colours, at a very low charge' and promises that 'having practiced above twenty years, he generally succeeds in producing a strong resemblance.' 4 The Saint John Common Council records show that he was admitted as a 'Freeman, Portrait Painter' in 1830.5
In about 1832, Gillespie began an extraordinary decade-long itinerancy slowly traveling down the East Coast of the United States through Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.6 He first moved to Eastport, Maine, near the New Brunswick border. Between June 3 and August 16, 1833, Gillespie advertised continuously in ten weekly issues of the Portland, Maine, Eastern Argus: 'FOR A FEW WEEKS ONLY! LIKENESSES, WITH THE FEATURES PAINTED IN COLORS, Only two dollars and fifty cents each. J. H. Gillespie, profile miniature painter, respectively solicits the Ladies and Gentleman of Portland...and, from having practiced above twenty-five years, he generally succeeds in producing a strong resemblance.' Along with the 1400 likenesses painted in Halifax, he now adds 'at St. John (N.B.) nearly 1300, and at Eastport upwards of 200,'. In order to further induce the public to visit his establishment, the advertisement describes his display of 'Panoramic and other Views of London, St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Seringapatam, Gibraltar, Rome, and c are placed to amuse parties calling when Mr. G. is engaged.' The 1834 Stimpson's Boston Directory lists James H. Gillespie as a 'profile miniature painter' with a studio at 153 Washington and a home on Elliot Street.
When Gillespie advertised in the Baltimore Sun of December 9, 1837, the price for portraits painted in color had increased from the $2.50 that he advertised in Portland, Maine, to $4. In a December 11, 1838, advertisement in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Gillespie 'late of London and New York,' invites the public to his painting room at 144 Chestnut Street, promising 'that there is no other professional Painter at present in the United States whose establishment is so well calculated to produce correct and well-painted Likenesses at so low a charge.'7 His sojourn in the United States came to an end and by 1842 Gillespie was working in Toronto. He exhibited at the Toronto Society of the Arts in 1847 and won prizes for his oil on canvas landscapes in the Upper Canada Provincial Exhibition of 1849.8 This is the last record of the artist to date.
Gillespie advertised that he produced a variety of different portrait styles with prices ranging from 25 cents to $4. In researching Gillespie's miniature portraits we found examples of six distinct styles he used. In each case the work had either his signature or his label glued to the reverse. We have enumerated his styles as follows:
Style 1: Simple silhouette. The 25-cent portrait in which the profile head and neck are painted in gray-black with gum arabic highlights of the ear, eye, and hair. No watercolor detail is added.
Style 2: Silhouette face with painted body. The 50-cent portrait in which the profile face is painted gray-black, while the body is carefully outlined and then painted in dark colors. No gum arabic detailing of the face or hair, but painted hair strands are added. The eyelashes are drawn with delicate brushstrokes. The neck between the profiled face and painted body is outlined, with details added. Extensive gum arabic highlights elaborate the clothing.
Style 3: White face on black background. This portrait style cost 5 shillings in England. The profiled face shows the features carefully modeled using pencil, ink, and gray wash watercolor details. The laboriously painted gray-black background provides contrast. The sitter's costume is depicted in a gray-black that is either slightly lighter or darker than the background. Thick strokes of gum arabic highlight the costume, while a very thick line of gum arabic defines the bust. These almost monochromatic portraits appear to be the style that Gillespie advertised as 'Likenesses, with the features neatly shaded on Black grounds, in imitation of Copper-Plate busts.' Several large family groups with individual portraits of up to eight members, all in style 3, have been found. Two family groups have been located in which Gillespie did the parents in style 2 and children in style 3.
Style 4: Silhouette with bronzed highlights. The $1 portrait in which a bust-length profile is colored gray-black, with bronze paint highlights used to indicate hair, ear, necklace, and dress.9
Style 5: Watercolor profile portrait. This was the portrait style first advertised at $2 and later raised to $4. The face appears in profile, with watercolor, ink, and pencil used to model the features. The distinctive background shading is the 'drapery' Gillespie described in his advertisements, and provides for ready identification of the artist's work in this style. The shading around the portrait's perimeter is achieved with large dabs of dark browns and blues concentrated on the lower right and left sides of the figure and a light blue color applied with minute brushstrokes on the top. The darker drapery catches the viewer's eye first and then draws it toward the face. In a few examples, only light blue coloration around the entire perimeter is found. Clothing is usually painted in dark tones of black or blue, with colored buttons or jewelry and gum arabic highlights. These portraits also show the artist's talent for modeling facial contours and his sensitive understanding of the personal features of each sitter. Entire families sat for their profiles in this style and several family groups mounted in a common frame are still intact. These oval portraits are found in lockets, simple wood frames, and stamped brass frames. From the number of examples found, Gillespie produced more of this style of portrait in the United States, although he provided his clients with his full range of choices.
Style 6: Less detailed watercolor profile portrait. The profile face is less modeled and simpler in execution than style 5. The body is also less elaborately drawn and there is no background shading. These are the only portraits originally framed in a square format. We have seen portraits in this style, with sitters from both Maine and Canada.
Gillespie provided many of his customers with their portraits neatly framed and the reverse sealed with his label. These labels have been invaluable in establishing that these different portrait styles are indeed his work. Two distinct types have been found. In type A, Gillespie promises a 'Likeness Drawn in One Minute'. Used by Gillespie throughout his career, this label has been found with many different typefaces, so it was reprinted many times during his travels. By providing no location on his labels, Gillespie could continue to use them as he moved from town to town. Two examples of a more elaborate label, type B, have been found on the reverse of two style 3 portraits, containing the words 'Likenesses Taken by J. H. Gillespie Profile Miniature Painter'. Both types of labels cover the back of the framed portraits. Over the years, as portraits were opened for cleaning and restoration, many of these labels were lost or have only remnants remaining. A small number of portraits have also been found with the handwritten inscription on the reverse, 'Drawn by J. H. Gillespie, Profile Painter.'10 In addition, a locket, recently discovered by David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles, now in the collection of Jane and Gerald Katcher, is signed 'Jas. H. Gillespie.' 'Jas.' was a common abbreviation for James. This, along with the Stimpson's Boston Directory of 1834, confirms that his first name was James.
Gillespie's portraits are similar in size, shape, and technique to miniatures worked on ivory. At first glance many of his portraits do appear to have the luminosity of ivory, but all of his known portraits were executed using watercolor, ink, and pencil on white Bristol board or on white wove paper. Gillespie first drew a profile outline of the sitter using his mechanical and optical instruments and then painted the portrait in whichever style the client preferred. When colored backgrounds were called for, the portrait was drawn first and the black background added without discernable brushstrokes. Jackson in Silhouettes: A History and Dictionary of Artists states that Gillespie's portraits are cutout profiles pasted onto Bristol board. However, every example we have seen has been drawn directly onto the board or paper, with - depending on the style - the face or background colored.
Gillespie's portraits have a wonderful detailing of features and personality. His sitters are minutely drawn with the finest of brushes and the finished product is meticulously delineated. Clothing is generally painted in dark colors offering contrast to the sitter's face. Details are often laboriously depicted using darker, more reflective lines of gum arabic. In several of his painting styles, there is a characteristic use of fanning brushstrokes of gum arabic at the armpit to suggest the separation of the arm from the body. Men's portraits have a deep line of gum arabic delineating the lapel and collar of the jacket. Shirt frills, cravats, and women's necks are carefully painted to separate the face from the body. Hair is depicted as a dark mass with added swirls of brushstrokes and not over painted with gum arabic as was common among miniature painters. Gillespie was so precise that he often used swirls of the most delicate brushstrokes to depict the eyelashes.
In his advertisements, Gillespie always extolled the public to visit his painting studio. He would only be in residence a short while and a visit would provide the exciting opportunity to see his 'curious optical and mechanical instruments.' In an age of intense public interest in new devices, this was an additional incentive to visit. Gillespie was referring to his version of the physiognotrace, whose lenses and a prism reduced the size of the image and projected it onto Bristol board or paper so that he could quickly and accurately draw the profile of the sitter, hence 'Likeness Drawn in One Minute.' His advertisements also enticed patrons with the promise of entertaining prints of foreign lands. Once in his studio, who could resist having their portrait done when he offered a variety of prices to fit every pocketbook? Gillespie rendered highly personal portraits that could not fail to please his sitters.
Suzanne Rudnick Payne, Ph.D., and Michael R. Payne, Ph.D., are members of the American Folk Art Society. This is the fifth article they have written about early American portrait painters.
2. Sue McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and Their Work 1760–1860 (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1978).
3. Beatrix T. Rumford, American Folk Portraits (Boston: New York Graphic Society in association with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1981), 106–108.
4. J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada, A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), 117, 423. Harper incorrectly states that Gillespie’s first name was John.
5. Rumford, American Folk Portraits.
6. We have been unable to substantiate the claim that Gillespie also worked in Kentucky. “Collector’s Notes,” The Magazine Antiques, September 1954, 218.
7. Harold E. Gillingham, “Notes on Philadelphia Profilists,” The Magazine Antiques, June 1930, 516-518.
8. Harper, Painting in Canada.
9. A portrait in this style appears in McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists.
10. McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists.