Like Washington Allston’s self-portrait [84.301] made a few years earlier, this painting clearly depicts a fashionably dressed gentleman of some wealth. But the similarities between the two portraits end there. Allston, an ambitious and cosmopolitan young painter, created a portrait of himself...
Like Washington Allston’s self-portrait [84.301] made a few years earlier, this painting clearly depicts a fashionably dressed gentleman of some wealth. But the similarities between the two portraits end there. Allston, an ambitious and cosmopolitan young painter, created a portrait of himself in order to advertise his artistic talents, his intellectual achievements, and his good taste. In contrast, nothing is known about Mr. Tiffen—even his name and place of residence, which have been attached to this portrait for more than fifty years, may not be accurate, for no Tiffens could be found in the census records of East Kingston, New Hampshire, or any of the surrounding towns. Nor is it known why he hired A. Ellis to paint his portrait. Ellis, a shadowy figure, is associated with some fifteen pictures from the Waterville area of central Maine and southeastern New Hampshire. Like other folk painters working in the rural United States at this time, Ellis did not have access to the kind of rigorous training in art that Allston had. As a result, he (or she) had difficulty creating a realistic depiction of three-dimensional form. The portrait emulates high-style works like Allston’s—for instance, Ellis depicted his sitter in a fashionable pose, with one hand tucked into his jacket—but since the artist used practically no shading, Mr. Tiffen looks like a collection of flat shapes rather than a real human being. Ellis also altered his vantage point from one section of the portrait to another in order to portray each of Tiffen’s features in the clearest possible way. He depicted the eyes and mouth frontally but the nose and ear in profile, yielding an image of a sitter with an impossibly distorted body. Despite this portrait’s lack of realism, its expressive rhythm of line and decorative distribution of shape give it its own graphic strength. By the early nineteenth century, a tradition of such folk portraits existed in rural areas of the United States. Generations of self-taught artists had created similar works for a local clientele who associated such pictures with high status in the community. Thus Mr. Tiffen would probably have been able to appreciate A. Ellis’s portrait of him on its own terms, as an elegant presentation of his style and character. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
1961, sold by George Abraham - Gilbert May Antiques, Granville, Mass. to Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch; 1969, gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch to the MFA. (Accession Date: March 11, 1970)
Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch