Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thomas Paine portrait by Charles Wilson Peale

In reply to two colleagues who recently inquired about the identity of the painter of this portrait of Thomas Paine: 

With respect to this particular portrait the editor of this blog cannot pretend to absolute certainty because there exists no comprehensive catalog of the known portraits of Thomas Paine. To my recollection, Conway is the only author/scholar to write about the subject in any depth and his account (found at the end of his Paine bio) is inadequate and quite outdated.  Many more portraits are now known, but the attributions on just as many are confused or controversial. The editor is in possession of a considerable file on the subject, has learned in the process that a descriptive catalog or bibliography is a greater task than appears at first blush and would welcome the collaboration of another scholar or enthusiast for the eventual realization of  such a work -- I'm not getting any younger.

The portrait is correctly attributed, I believe, to Charles Wilson Peale (April 15, 1741 – February 22, 1827), who knew Paine. There is or was a copy of it hanging in Constitution Hall -- I believe I recall seeing it there some years ago. Conway wrote -- on what authority he does not say -- that the latter is a second copy by Peale.  The original is said to hang in the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, now an important Portrait Gallery of paintings by Charles Wilson Peale.

You will sometimes also see it attributed to Bass Otis (July 17, 1784 - November 3, 1861), but if  Otis painted one -- and I don't pretend to know to a certainly -- it would logically been a copy or study.

Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever done a thorough analysis of the extant and/or earliest copies of this work or any other Paine portrait. There must be material enough among them for any number of monographs, dissertations or other studies by present-day or aspiring scholars and art historians.

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