Subject of the first major solo exhibition of an American Folk Painter, Sheldon Peck's powerful portrayals of his neighbors in upstate New York and later in Illinois have long been regarded as the most striking among the many products of 19th century folk artists.
Peck began painting portraits of his Vermont neighbors around the time of his marriage in 1824. He and his family moved to Jordan, New York, in 1828. His subjects here, Fanny Root Millener (1804-1878) and her daughter Frances Almira Millener (b. 1828), lived within several miles of Peck, just over the county line in Cayuga County, New York, near Port Byron (est. 1825). Peck would have been a contemporary of the young Millener couple, and may have friendly with them. Fanny Root Millener had married to George Millener (1803-1888), and the couple had an unknown number of children. George, Fanny, and two infant sons are buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Port Byron, New York. Nellie B. Waterman King and Richard T. King, great-grandchilden of George and Fanny, are also buried in this cemetery, and it seems likely that this portrait did not leave the area of the small village of Port Byron until it was donated to the Cayuga Museum in nearby Auburn in the mid-20th century.
While Peck did not sign his work, sitters with piercing eyes, prominent brows and a locked, serious gaze epitomize his distinctive style. Upon his arrival in New York, he continued to paint half-length portraits as he had in Vermont, but in a somewhat brighter pallet, and he began embellishing his compositions with jewelry, bibles, fruit and furniture, increasing the works decorative appeal. The pose of the Millener mother and daughter is closely related to a mother and son composition in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute (see Marianne E. Balazs "Sheldon Peck" in Antiques, (August 1975), plate 4, pp. 273-84), and to a mother and child composition in the Onandaga Historical Association (Marna Anderson, Selected Masterpieces of New York State Folk Painting, cat. no. 36. While some other compositions include similar painted fruit baskets and pieces of furniture for decoration and scale, few others offer the familiarity of the mother's arm over her daughter's shoulder and the "moment" created by the frozen action of the child picking up the apple. It is not clear whether Peck was offering a symbol of innocence with this device, but he has certainly offered a portrait that offers a window into the lives of the sitters