This portrait probably represents wealthy Boston merchant and mariner John Wensley (b. about 1640). The likeness was misidentified in the early twentieth century as Reverend Oliver Peabody (1698–1752), grandfather of the last family owner, Hannah Holyoke (d. 1865). Since Peabody was not born...
This portrait probably represents wealthy Boston merchant and mariner John Wensley (b. about 1640). The likeness was misidentified in the early twentieth century as Reverend Oliver Peabody (1698–1752), grandfather of the last family owner, Hannah Holyoke (d. 1865). Since Peabody was not born when the painting was executed, other ancestral subjects were considered. Possibilities included Elizur Holyoke (1651–1711), a Boston goldsmith and great-grandfather of Hannah Holyoke, and Reverend Benjamin Eliot (1646 or 1647–1687), a relative who died without descendants; the gentleman portrayed, however, does not fit either occupation. He wears jewelry, lace, and full sleeves—a costume appropriate for a wealthy Boston merchant of the 1670s. The man’s ruffled frill (the strip of lacey fabric draped from his neck, between the lapels) and dressing gown date from the last four decades of the century. His hair, worn long, and full sleeves place the sitter closer to 1660 than to 1690. The painting’s stylistic similarity to Elizabeth Paddy Wensley (Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts) and its provenance through Wensley descendants suggest that these canvases are likely pendants and the male sitter is John Wensley. The artist carefully modeled the faces and adeptly depicted the eyes to create the illusion of perspective and depth. The elongated fingers are distinctive and appear in both portraits. The hands, gracefully arranged in a stock pose, are rendered with subtle shifts in value to create the appearance of three-dimensionality. When hung together, the subjects look toward each other, as if sharing the same landscape between them. Furthermore, the two paintings retain identical early American pine frames. The most significant difference between the two paintings is in their dimensions. The overall canvas for the gentleman’s portrait is slightly smaller than that of the proposed pendant, and no physical evidence indicates that the painting was reduced from its original size. The measurements of the man’s features are correspondingly less than those of Mrs. Wensley—an anomaly that cannot be explained and leaves open the possibility that the sitter is still misidentified. The artist remains unidentified. The Wensleys were married by 1663 and lived in Boston, where they had five children. Wensley’s success is recorded in the expensive lace and silk garments depicted; his wealth is confirmed in an inventory dated May 24, 1686, valuing his estate at £1,762 (at a time when anyone with a personal worth of over £200 was considered a wealthy gentleman). Since the Wensleys were residents of Boston throughout the 1670s, their portraits were undoubtedly painted in New England, possibly before John departed for a 1673 voyage. A will of December 9, 1672, prior to his departure, divides his property; two children born in 1674 and 1675 attest to his safe return. For many years this painting hung in the Holyoke family house in Boxford, Massachusetts, before entering the possession of Hannah Holyoke, the daughter of Reverend Elizur Holyoke (1731–1806). The reverend was the son of Samuel Holyoke (1693–1768) and Elizabeth Bridgham, granddaughter of John and Elizabeth Wensley through their daughter, Mercy Wensley Bridgham. The Wensley portraits probably descended at John’s death to his wife, who passed one to each daughter. Hannah Holyoke died without heirs. About 1912, Dwight M. Prouty of Boston purchased the painting from Mrs. Elvin French, who occupied the Holyoke house. It remained with descendants of the Prouty family until acquired by the Museum in 1984. This text was adapted and expanded by Cody Hartley from Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Robert F. Trent, New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century, vol. 3, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982).
1670s, the sitter, John Wensley and and his wife Elizabeth Wensley; by descent to their daughter Mercy Wensley Bridgham; by descent to her daughter Elizabeth Bridgham Holyoke; by descent to her son Reverend Elizur Holyoke (1731-1806); 1806, by inheritance to his daughter Hannah Holyoke; to Mrs. Elvin French, who occupied the Holyoke house in Boxford, Mass., after Hannah died without heirs; about 1912, sold by Mrs. French to Dwight M. Prouty, Boston; descended in the Prouty family to Mrs. Lee Fewel Boiset, Pasadena, Calif.; 1984, sold by the estate of Mrs. Lee Fewel Boiset to the MFA. (Accession Date: November 21, 1984)
Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund