AMERICAN SCHOOL (EARLY 19TH CENTURY)
AMERICAN SCHOOL (EARLY 19TH CENTURY)
AMERICAN SCHOOL (EARLY 19TH CENTURY)
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PROPERTY OF AN IMPORTANT NEW YORK COLLECTOR
AMERICAN SCHOOL (EARLY 19TH CENTURY)

A PORTRAIT OF TWO GIRLS

Details
AMERICAN SCHOOL (EARLY 19TH CENTURY)
A PORTRAIT OF TWO GIRLS
oil on canvas
24 x 20 in.
Provenance
John Judkin (1913-1963), England and New York
Dr. Dallas Bache Pratt (1914-1994), New York, partner of the above
Sotheby's, New York, 20 January 1995, lot 245

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Lot Essay

Unconventional and arresting, this double portrait presents its subjects as equals at a time of pervasive racial inequality. If anything, the pose and props cast the African American girl as the superior figure. Both wear coral necklaces, but additional bracelets and pendant earrings are seen on the African American girl only. Furthermore, her body faces frontal to the viewer, rather than at a slight angle, and the casual placement of her arm upon the white girl’s shoulder implies a sense of dominance. If the girls were of the same race, such a depiction would indicate an older and younger sibling and the intimacy of the pose suggests that the girls lived their lives as close as sisters in a shared household. Interestingly, the white girl holds what appears to be a chapbook, an inexpensively produced small, short and coverless book. Hers is inscribed CINDERELLA at the bottom of each page and depicts two scenes from the story, the appearance of the Fairy Godmother and the Prince and Cinderella dancing at the ball. The inclusion of a reference to a well-known story with step-sister characters raises the possibility that in the absence of blood ties, the artist was nonetheless deliberately conveying sisterhood.

The girls’ dress and the execution of the work suggest that this portrait was painted in the first couple of decades of the nineteenth century. The high-waist cut of the dresses is seen in related portraits from circa 1805 to 1820; thereafter, dresses of similar design tend to have lower waistlines. Slightly gathered with vertical seams, the off-the-shoulder sleeves of the white girl’s dress resemble those seen on two circa 1805 portraits at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Maria de Wolf by Cephas Thompson (acc. no. 1980.439) and Emma van Name by Joshua Johnson (acc. no. 2016.116). The eyelit trim of both dresses is particularly well rendered. A slightly later circa 1830 portrait of a woman, probably upstate New York, has similar detailing such as the small threads emanating from the edge (David Wheatcroft Antiques, American Folk Art, vol. 1 (March 2004), no. 21). Also distinctive is the execution of the red curtain with flame-like brushstrokes in light red conveying the folds in the fabric. Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822) used similar strokes, described by Linda Crocker Simmons as "'electric' highlights of the drapery" and it is possible that the artist of this work was influenced by Polk's style. Such strokes appear in a 1787-1790 portrait by Polk of Mrs. Jacob Ten Broeck and Daughter (1787-1790), which may have been painted in the sitters' home in Albany, New York. However, they also feature in several of Polk's portraits painted in Baltimore and Winchester, Virginia in the following decade and a Maryland or Virginia origin is also possible for the portrait offered here (Linda Crocker Simmons, Charles Peale Polk: A Limner and His Likeness (Washington D.C., 1981), pp. x, xi, 25, 40, 47, 67-68, nos. 9, 51, 71, 72, 135-138).

As indicated by the chalk inscription on the reverse, the portrait was owned by John Judkin (1913-1963), an English antiques dealer who had a life-long partnership with Dr. Dallas Bache Pratt (1914-1994). The couple were the founders of the American Museum in Britain and had several residences, including Freshford, near Bath, England, apartments in London and New York, and a farmhouse in Downington, Pennsylvania. After Judkin's early death in 1963, all his property passed to Pratt and this portrait furnished their New York apartment prior to its sale at auction in 1995.
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