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The Sherman Limner

American, active c. 1785/1790

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The Sherman Limner, whose appellation derives from his portraits of the prominent Sherman family of New Haven, Connecticut, was active circa the late years of the eighteenth century, between 1785 and 1790. Works by The Sherman Limner share certain characteristics which make possible the attribution of a number of paintings. The artist's style is distinguished by tight, even brushwork, thinly applied paint, and the careful rendering of costume details. A moderate understanding of the principles of modeling keeps the reliance upon outline to a minimum. The props and poses of the figures in The Sherman Limner's paintings indicate that the artist had some knowledge of eighteenth-century academic portraiture. Creating the illusion of a realistic spatial setting appears not to have interested The Sherman Limner. Backgrounds vary from murky outdoor views, to unarticulated planes of paint, to confined interior spaces. The embellishment of the interiors ranges from ornate to elementary.

In 1957 Susan Sawitzky proposed Abraham Delanoy, Jr. (1742-1795) as the artist of The Sherman Limner portraits. A colonial painter who studied in London with Benjamin West, Delanoy is recognized mainly for his accomplished portraits of New York City's Beekman family. Sawitzky's argument, which has been rejected by some scholars and accepted by others, is problematic. Two pieces of documentary evidence form the basis of her identification. First, three advertisements in New Haven's Connecticut Journal in 1784, 1785, and 1786 establish Delanoy's presence in that city. The component of the argument that links Delanoy to the Sherman family is less conclusive. An inscription, now preserved only in a photograph of the back of a painting, reads, Roger Sherman Aged 14, [?] / Apr. 19 1735 / A. Delanoy Pinxit. Sawitzky accepts only the name of the artist. Her theory that the identity of the sitter and the date had been either altered or added to make the painting more appealing to a twentieth-century descendant/buyer sheds doubt on the integrity of the inscription.

Genuine similarities, however, do exist between the accepted Delanoys and The Sherman Limner works, and there is also an irrefutable likeness between some of their paintings. Sawitsky hypothesizes that the decline in Delanoy's social and professional standing, chronicled by William Dunlap, accounts for the change in style between the portraits of the 1760s and the Sherman and related portraits of the 1780s. Dunlap knew Delanoy just before his move to New Haven: "I remember Delanoy from 1780 to 1783, in the 'sear and yellow leaf' of both life and fortune. He was consumptive, poor, and his only employment sign-painting." Nonetheless, is seems unlikely that this alone could account for the major stylistic differences between the two groups of works.

Two more likely possibilities for the artist of The Sherman Limner portraits suggest themselves. Whether Delanoy took on painting students is not known, but Dunlap mentions him in this context. The exchange between student and teacher might well account for the relationship between Delanoy's work in New York and The Sherman Limner portraits. Delanoy also mentions a "good and steady Workman to assist" in his 1786 Connecticut Journal advertisement. That the painter of the later works was either a student or an assistant would account more easily for both the similarities and the differences among the portraits than the hypothesis that they are by the same hand. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

Artist Bibliography

Sawitzky, Susan. "Abraham Delanoy in New Haven." New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin 41 (April 1957): 193-206.
Schloss 1972, 15, 42-48.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 345-347.

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