Follow the Stories | Spokane, WA (2008)
Who Painted This Adorable Baby?
Portraitist Clarissa Peters, a.k.a. Mrs. Moses B. Russell, had a distinctive folk style, usually painting her subject full body and facing straight forward.
In a sense, 19th-century miniature portraits were the portable wallet photos of their day.
At the Spokane, Washington, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in July 2007, a woman named Martha came in with a little treasure, a miniature portrait done with watercolors on ivory. A little larger than a wallet photo, the painting was done in the mid-1800s and framed in a Victorian case of leather decorated with mother-of-pearl and gilt embossing. Such miniatures were the portable pocket photos of their era, and were often worn as a locket or jewelry. Drawn to the image of the baby with "the little petticoat, the one bare foot and one shoed foot," Martha bought the miniature at an antiques shop on Cape Cod in the 1950s.
Who was Mrs. Moses B. Russell, miniature portrait painter extraordinaire?
"I couldn't live without it," she said.
Mr. or Mrs. Moses B. Russell?
Ken Farmer, who appraised the piece for the show, was also taken with the portrait. "The thing that got me, when you opened it up and I saw those eyes," he said. "Those eyes are so plaintive." Farmer, a Virginia appraiser who often deals in folk art, suspected the baby's portrait was done by Mrs. Moses B. Russell, a Boston painter who specialized in miniature portraits from the mid-1830s until her death in 1854. After the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event, we contacted Elle Shushan, a miniature-portrait expert based in Philadelphia and she confirmed Farmer's hunch.
Shushan explained that the portraitist's maiden name was Clarissa Peters; she was closely linked with her husband Moses, who was also a painter, and Clarissa's paintings are sometimes misattributed to him. Part of the reason for the confusion is that Moses was also a portraitist who took up miniatures. Figuring out authorship is further muddied because Clarissa rarely signed her paintings, using the name "Mrs. Moses P. Russell" when she did.
According to a December 1999 article* in The Magazine Antiques, "Mrs. Moses B. Russell: Boston Miniaturist," an 1841 review in the Boston Evening Transcript included these comments on the work of both husband and wife, who exhibited their paintings in a show held by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston: "Mr. Russell has some miniature paintings which indicate a wonderful degree of skill, and so exquisite a finish that they will bear the closest scrutiny. ... His lady, Mrs. Russell, has also on exhibition three or four specimens, so well executed that we should not know to which of them should be awarded the palm."
Rock Candy in the Handkerchief?
Much of the discussion at the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW and afterwards centered on the handkerchief the baby was holding in the portrait. "Do you know why the baby has that look?" Martha said to Farmer. "[It's because] the handkerchief is a rock candy. And it's been moisturized and the baby can suck on it and that makes him calm down. That's one of the things that people in the 19th century used to use for calming their babies."
Shushan had her doubts about the rock candy theory, thinking the handkerchief might just be a handkerchief, one among many props used by portrait artists.
"I don't know anything about children sucking on rock candy through handkerchiefs," said Shushan, "But in 75 percent of miniatures kids are holding something." Shushan attributed the calm look in the baby's eyes not to sugar, but to Clarissa Peters' naïve folk style. "Her children are almost always shown full body and full face looking directly at the artist with these two big eyes, and almost always holding something," Shushan says. "She painted the same face over and over again and it's a very cute face. Whether it was highly regarded back then by academic painters we don't know, but it's highly regarded today by folk art collectors."
Mr. Russell won first prize at that Boston Mechanics' show, but over time his wife's work has actually gained more acclaim, as well as more value, than her husband's. Martha bought her miniature for about $150 over 50 years ago. Farmer said the retail value of the piece had increased about a hundred-fold. After hearing Farmer estimate the miniature portrait's retail value today, Martha said, "Maybe you better say that again."
"Read my lips," Farmer said. "Twelve to fifteen thousand dollars."
This article was updated on April 14, 2008, to correct an error. In the original version, the paragraph quoting an 1841 review in the Boston Evening Transcript should have credited a December 1999 article in The Magazine Antiques titled "Mrs. Moses B. Russell: Boston Miniaturist," as the source for the text of the quotation. (Go to the corrected sentence.)
See the Spokane, Washington (2008) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
For more on this subject, see:
"Mrs. Moses B. Russell: Boston Miniaturist," by Randall L. Holton and Charles A. Gilday. The Magazine Antiques, December 1999.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.