This group of six miniature profile portraits is attributed to the Da Lee family of itinerant artists who were based in upstate New York but are recorded as having travelled throughout Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, where they executed commissions beginning around 1837 through the 1840s. All signed examples are by Justus Da Lee (1793-1878), the patriarch of the family, who described himself as a “professor of penmanship” in his sketchbook Emblematical Figures, Representations & To Please the Eye. Early scholarship attributed all works in this group to him; however, more recent research has brought to light additional artists involved in the family enterprise. These include Justus’ brother Richard Waterman Moffitt Da Lee (1809-1868), son Amon Gilbert Justus Da Lee (1820-1879) and possibly wife Mary A. Fowler Da Lee (1820-1879), all of whom often worked collectively. The format of the portraits vary slightly, with many of the children depicted in full or three-quarter length while the adults are almost always half-length in profile; occasionally women’s bodies are presented in a frontal view. All are executed in meticulous detail with minute brushwork that successfully captures the sitter’s likeness (for more information on the Da Lee family, see Suzanne Rudnick Payne and Michael R. Payne, “To Please the Eye: Justus Da Lee and His Family,” Folk Art (Winter 2004/2005), pp. 47-57).
Ink inscriptions on the reverse of the boy and two men identify them as Van Buren Da Lee (1837-1905), the Reverend Luther Lee (1800-1889), who is depicted with books, and Lemuel Crane. Van Buren was the son of Richard and his wife Hannah Maria Minton Da Lee (1813-1890). He moved to Illinois in 1852 and served in the 17th Illinois Cavalry during the Civil War. Two other known portraits of him as a young boy four years of age, both depicting him holding a whip and his cap, are attributed to his father; one is in a private collection and the other in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg (Joan R. Brownstein and Elle Shushan, “Side Portrait Painters: Differentiating the Da Lee Family Artists,” The Magazine Antiques (July/August 2011), p. 158).