Fig. 1: George Gassner (1811–1861), Little Girl Holding an Orange, Newburyport, Massachusetts, ca. 1845. Oil on canvas, 34¼ x 27¼ inches. Signed in pencil on back of canvas: “G. Gassner / Newberry Port.” Private collection. Photography courtesy, David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles.
Fig. 2: George Gassner (1811–1861), Brother and Sister Holding Hands, ca. 1849. Oil on canvas, 36 x 29 inches. Signed in chalk on back of canvas: “G. Ga-sner.” Canvas makers stencil: “Prepared by / Morris / No. 17 Exchange.” Private collection. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth; courtesy, David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles.

The charming folk portrait of a little girl in a blue dress holding an orange (Fig. 1) has been a part of my life for over forty years. It was purchased in the early 1970s by my mother, Peggy Schorsch, from Kenneth and Stephen Snow, well-known father and son antiquarians from Newburyport, Massachusetts. The Snows had acquired the portrait locally. It was believed to have been painted by an itinerant artist who had lodged with the family of the little girl in Newburyport over several weeks, during which time he also painted portraits of her parents. These details were bolstered by an inscription on the back of the canvas, thought to read “G. Gustemer – Newberry Port” (Fig. 1a). In 1977, my mother sold the portrait to collectors Frank and Karen Miele,1 and several years later, we reacquired it for another private collector.2 Since then, a larger group of closely related but unsigned portraits have come to light, some bearing Boston canvas maker stencils, but all efforts to locate or identify the artist “G. Gustemer” over several decades proved fruitless.

Fig. 1a: Signature on reverse of figure 1.
Fig. 3: Advertisement for George Gassner in the Rhode-Island Republican, Newport, Rhode Island, (September 2, 1835, vol. 25, no. 19), 3. Courtesy of Deborah M. Child.
Fig. 4: George Gassner (1811–1861), George Washington, 1836. Copy of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, commissioned by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1800. Oil on canvas, 96⅝ x 62-3⁄16 inches. Courtesy, Vermont State Curator’s Office.

A tipping point in the quest for the elusive G. Gustemer came in September 2013, when we acquired the double portrait of a brother and sister holding hands (Fig. 2). Unlined, on its original stretchers, and in its original frame, the portrait held two noteworthy clues on the back of its canvas: a stencil and a chalk signature. The inked stencil indicated that it was “Prepared by/Morris/No. 17/Exchange.” The art supply shop of Charles A. Morris was located at this Boston address only in the year 1849, indicating the earliest date the portrait could have been painted.3 Of the chalk signature, only “G. G––er” was distinguishable, but it was enough to suggest that here was a second signed work by “G. Gustemer.” Recognizing the promise in this discovery, and seeking a fresh perspective, we consulted noted folk-art researcher Deborah M. Child, who interpreted the signature as “G. Ga–sner.” 4 The inscription of the first portrait was reexamined and found to be “G. assner/Newberry Port,” proof that these portraits were instead painted by George Gassner, an artist practically unknown to students of American folk painting. Although Gassner has been listed as an American portraitist since at least 1941, his biography contained factual errors, and the significance of his complete body of work and stature as a folk painter remained unrecognized.5

While earlier biographies of George Gassner have identified him as a German immigrant, recently uncovered documentary evidence indicates his place of birth as New York City in 1811,6 probably the son and namesake of a grocer listed in the 1815 New York City directory. George Gassner next appeared in the historical record some eighteen years later, in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was married on March 17, 1829, to Eunice Hawley, a resident of Lowell, Massachusetts, where the couple settled,7 and produced one child, Esther Anne Gassner (1833–1894). Though based in Lowell, Gassner led the life of an itinerant portraitist, working along routes that included central Massachusetts, Vermont, and along the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastlines. During the mid-1830s, Gassner advertised his services as a portrait painter in a series of newspapers in Bristol and Newport, Rhode Island, and Nantucket, Massachusetts (Fig. 3). His advertisement in the June 20, 1835, edition of the Nantucket Inquirer stated that “George Gassner, Portrait Painter, From New York––will make a short tarry in this place, for the purpose of persuading his profession. Specimens can be seen at his Room, over Mr. E. M. Gardner’s Store. All favors will be thankfully acknowledged.” Between August 6 and September 30 of 1835, he advertised in the Rhode Island Republican: “Portrait Painting. George Gassner, Artist, Respectfully informs the Ladies and Gentleman of Newport and its vicinity, that he has taken a room over Henry and Wm. Barber’s Store, in Thames Street for the purpose of pursuing his profession. All favors thankfully acknowledged. A few specimens of his work can be seen at his room.”

Fig. 5: George Gassner (1811–1861), Portrait of a Man, 1834.
Oil on canvas, 33 x 26 inches.
Enscribed at lower left “Taken by G. Gassner 1834.” Courtesy, Historic New England, Gift of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little (1991.938.1, 2).
Fig. 6: George Gassner (1811–1861), Portrait of Lady with Bonnet, 1834.
Oil on canvas, 33 x 26 inches.
Inscribed at lower left “Taken by G. Gassner 1834.” Courtesy, Historic New England, Gift of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little (1991.938.1, 2).
Fig. 7: Attributed to George Gassner (1811–1861), Boy in Blue Holding a Whip With Seated Dog, ca. 1846–1850. Oil on canvas.
Canvas makers stencil: “from J. J. Adams / 99 Washington St / Boston.”
Private collection.
Photography courtesy, David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles.

Although Gassner chose the typical course of an itinerant portraitist, he also sought out larger and more profitable artistic ventures. At the age of twenty-six, he undertook his largest and most ambitious known work (Fig. 4), an accurate eight foot by five foot copy of Gilbert Stuart’s (1756–1828) portrait of George Washington, commissioned by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1800, a variation of Stuart’s 1796 Lansdowne portrait.8 Gassner envisioned his enormous replica as a centerpiece for the House chamber of the Vermont State House built in Montpelier in 1833. He painted it ahead of an official commission and priced it at $500. The legislators vote on the issue resulted in a deadlock, with the tie breaking vote cast by Lieutenant Governor David Camp. In 1837, Gassner’s Washington portrait became the first work of art purchased by the state of Vermont.9

Gassner’s Washington portrait suggests that he possessed the technical skills to paint portraits in an academic tradition. Whether he had an artistic preference for working in a simplified folk art style, or recognized a larger and perhaps more profitable market for less expensive portraits, is unknown. He may have been influenced in his decision by the flourishing careers of contemporary itinerant portraitists like Erastus Salisbury Field (1805–1900), William Matthew Prior (1806–1873), and Ammi Phillips (1787–1868), who collectively turned out literally thousands of folk portraits over long and prosperous careers.10 The perceived success of folk portrait painters did not go unnoticed by their acclaimed academic competitors, famously acknowledged by the painter John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) in an 1825 letter to his nephew: “Were I to begin life again I should not hesitate to follow this plan, that is, paint portraits cheap and slight, for the mass of folks can’t judge of the merits of a well finished picture, I am more and more persuaded of this. Indeed, moving about through the country as Phillips did, and probably still does…” 11

Fig. 8: Attributed to George Gassner (1811–1861), Girl with Toy Rooster, ca. 1840. Oil on canvas, 30⅛ x 25⅛ inches.
Courtesy, National gallery of Art; Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch (1953.5.71).
Fig. 9: Attributed to George Gassner (1811–1861), Child with Cat, Cradle and Basket, ca. 1840. Oil on canvas, 33 x 29 inches.
Photograph courtesy, America Hurrah Archive.
Fig. 10: Attributed to George Gassner (1811–1861), Two Boys in Green Tunics, ca. 1845. Oil on canvas, 36⅜ x 29¼ inches.
Courtesy, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York;
Gift of Stephen C. Clark Sr. (N0269.1961).

The earliest dated portraits by George Gassner are a pair (Figs. 5, 6),12 inscribed at lower left, “Taken by G. Gassner 1834.” Their formalized composition is offset by anatomical abstraction, most evident in the dramatically sloped shoulders hidden beneath a shawl in the likeness of the woman. By the mid-1840s, Gassner had developed a more polished and recognizable style for his portraits, typically depicting standing children posed against plain dark backgrounds (figs 1, 2; Figs. 7, 8), their feet distinctively positioned at a set angle on slanted floorboards, with figured carpet (Fig. 9), and occasionally, a minimal exterior view (Fig. 10). Two portraits are horizontal compositions incorporating multiple sitters (Figs. 11, 12). Simplified and often abstract rendering of hands are a common characteristic of the portraits. Gassner often used store-bought canvases, with a number of the portraits having markings from Boston art supply firms. Original frames observed consist of molded mahogany veneer with gilt liner; simple molded gilt; and molded with elaborate carved and gessoed gilt. At least one is known with painted and gilt-stenciled decoration that may be original.

Eunice Hawley Gassner died on August 30, 1836, and a little over a year later George Gassner was remarried to Emeline S. Cooley in Enfield, Connecticut, on September 21 1837. The couple relocated from Lowell some ninety miles southwest to the town of Chicopee Falls near Springfield, Massachusetts.13 The couple produced two sons, George born in 1838 and James Christian in 1840. In search of a broader client base, Gassner returned to Lowell in 1844, where he was a boarder at S. P. Bean’s and later, at 15 Hurd Street, variously listed in the city directories as a portrait painter and artist.

In about 1850 Gassner portrayed the entire Colby family of Lowell, both the living and the dead (Figs. 12–14).14 Mr. and Mrs. Francis M. Colby are seated together on a neoclassical couch in a horizontal format. The full-length portraits of the Colby children, one living and the other deceased, are Gassner’s most complex likenesses. Arvilanah Colby (fig. 13), who died of cholera infantum in 1844, just shy of her second birthday, is portrayed by Gassner as she would have appeared about age five or six and wearing age-appropriate attire. Her portrait is inscribed at lower left “Avrillannah [sic] Colbey Died July 18, 1844 Aged One Year 10 Months & 2 days/Painted by Geo. Gassner.” Her brother Francis M. Colby Jr. (fig. 14) was born June 7, 1846, and is similarly dressed, but appears to be a bit older. These portraits are markedly different from the others painted by Gassner, with their brighter overall palette and with the subjects depicted outdoors. The Colby children stand before expansive landscape backgrounds, a variation from his standardized formula, which may have been an attempt to distract the viewer from the hard reality that the charming little girl in red was painted about six years after her death, her facial features possibly copied from another portrait or daguerreotype.

Fig. 11: Attributed to George Gassner (1811–1861), Family Portrait, ca. 1843–1850. Oil on canvas, 27 x 34 inches.
Canvas makers stencil: “Prepared by Hollis and Wheeler, Boston, Mass.”
Photograph courtesy, America Hurrah Archive.
Fig. 12: George Gassner (1811–1861). Francis M. Colby and Arvilla Smith Colby, Lowell, Massachusetts, ca. 1850.
Oil on canvas, 28 x 35 inches.
Photograph courtesy, Pook & Pook, Inc (September 20 2003, Lot 174).
Fig. 13: George Gassner (1811–1861), Arvillanah Colby, Lowell, Massachusetts, ca. 1850.
Inscribed lower left: “Died July 18, 1844 Aged one year 10 mos & 2 days. Painted by Geo. Gassner.” Oil on canvas, 42½ x 36 inches.
Canvas makers stamp: “Prepared by Hollis and Wheeler, 39 Union St. Boston, Mass.” Photograph courtesy, Jeffrey Tillou Antiques.
Fig. 14: George Gassner (1811–1861), Francis M. Colby, Jr, Lowell, Massachusetts, ca. 1850. Oil on canvas, 42½ x 36 inches.
Photograph, courtesy of Jeffrey Tillou Antiques.
Fig. 15: Attributed to George Gassner (1811–1861), Little Girl with Flowers, ca. 1850–1855. Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches.
Canvas maker’s stencil: “J.J. Adams/Washington St.”
Photograph courtesy, Sotheby’s, New York (January 27, 1990, lot 1351).

Throughout the 1850s Gassner maintained studios in Chicopee, Boston, and Springfield. The 1850 census records him residing in Chicopee, with his wife Emeline, age 31, and children, Esther, 18, George, 12, and James, 10. In 1856, Gassner was listed as a portrait painter with a studio at 265 Washington Street in Boston, and in 1860, as an artist residing in Chicopee with his mother-in-law, wife, and one son. Gassner was last recorded as a painter, boarding at 14 Court Street, in the 1861 Springfield, Massachusetts, directory. Although undated, the portrait of a young girl in a blue dress holding flowers (Fig. 15) may represent the style he painted in during the later years of his career.15 Gassner died from complications from diabetes on August 25, 1861, at Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts.

With this new research, a more complete and accurate biography of George Gassner has emerged and the body of his work can now be fully appreciated. Finally unmasked and fully revealed, the portraits of George Gassner deserve to take their rightful place alongside his equally talented but far better-known contemporaries.

David A. Schorsch has been dealing in and researching Americana for more than thirty-five years. He is the author of a series of catalogs and articles devoted to various categories of American antiques, and was a contributor and co-editor of the two volumes of   Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence, Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana (2006, 2011). Since 1995 he has been affiliated with Eileen M. Smiles.

This article was originally published in the Anniversary 2015 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a digitized version of which is available on Antiques & Fine Art, AFAmag, AFAnews, and AFA Publishing are affiliated with