A remarkable survival story, this intricate overmantel attributed to Winthrop Chandler (1747-1790) was hidden beneath layers of paint when, by chance, it was discovered and preserved. In the 1920s, builder Walter Collet salvaged a faux bois wood painted panel from an historic home (likely in Connecticut), and his son-in-law Scott Butler gifted it to a couple in the process of restoring an old farmhouse. As the new owners began stripping the painted surface they discovered this delightful image of gentlemen, horses, wildlife and trees hidden underneath.
In this bucolic woodland scene, an impeccably dressed man in a tricorn hat sits atop a trotting horse. Across the panel, a couple embraces in the shade of a tree. Creatures abound: birds, a squirrel, a stag flanked by a dog and a dragonfly move through the vista, filling the piece with energy and whimsy. Scholar Linda Carter Lefko, co-author with Jane E. Radcliffe of Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes 1825-1845 (Pennsylvania, 2011), has attributed this work to Chandler based, in part, on its striking resemblance to a known overmantel by the artist from the Ebenezer Waters house in West Sutton, Massachusetts (see Sotheby's, New York, The Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little Collection, Part II, 21-22 October 1994, lot 739). The two works show great similarities in rendering of horses, in figures and in landscape; the most direct comparison is seen in the horse and rider featured on the lower right of the Waters’ house overmantel (fig. 1) and the mounted nobleman on the lower left of the piece offered here.
Wooden panels like this one were frequently employed as decoration above fireplaces in American homes during the second half of the eighteenth century. Landscape painting as room decorating was popular in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and first appeared in America when English artists arrived in the South and advertised their skills in local newspapers (Nina Fletcher Little, American Decorative Wall Painting, 1700-1850 (New York, 1972 (reprint 1989)), p. 17). American artists responded quickly to this taste for decoration, and Chandler created some of the earliest extant American landscape panels.
Winthrop Chandler was a versatile artist, recognized for his oil portraits and panel landscapes. Born in Woodstock, Connecticut, he went to Boston as a young man to study painting, and had returned to his hometown by March 1, 1770. In 1772, he married Mary Gleason, and they had five sons and two daughters. In the summer of 1775, Chandler moved his wife and children to Worcester, Massachusetts. Mary died in 1789 and he returned to Connecticut in early 1790; he died in July of that year (Jean Lipman and Tom Armstrong, eds., American Folk Painters of Three Centuries (New York, 1980), pp. 26-29).