The identity of the artist who created the Denison family portraits has long eluded scholars. His sitters are all from Stonington, Connecticut, and their portraits are part of the tradition of Connecticut portraiture that flourished from c. 1790/1810.
One of the first to suggest an identity for The Denison Limner was Ralph Thomas of the New Haven Historical Society, who concluded in 1956 that the Denison portraits given to the National Gallery by Colonel and Mrs. Garbisch (1953.5.35, 1980.62.26-28) were painted by Joseph Steward. Steward was an artist, clergyman, and entrepreneur who was born in Worcester County, Massachusetts, in 1753. He studied for the ministry under the Reverend Doctor Levi Hart of Preston, Connecticut, and subsequently settled with his wife and children in the town of Hampton. By 1797 the family had moved to Hartford, where Steward established a museum of "natural curiosities and paintings," which he operated until his death in 1822. Among the works he exhibited were portraits of American historical and political figures, some painted by Steward himself.
The most persuasive argument for attributing the Denison works to Steward is their similarity to a pair of portraits assigned to Steward on the basis of a notice in the account book of one of the sitters. In September 1789, Mrs. Steward settled a bill with John Avery of Preston for "2 likenesses [pound sign] 5/4/0." The portraits in question, Mrs. John (Lucy Ayer) Avery and John Avery are very similar in appearance to the Denison portraits.
The Averys' home town in eastern Connecticut is less than fifteen miles north of Stonington. Another pair of portraits of Preston residents attributed to Steward--Wheeler Coit and Mrs. Wheeler (Sybil Tracy) Coit-- also shares many characteristics with the Denison portraits. The Coit and Avery pairs have similar dimensions.
These earlier works (c. 1789/1790) differ from Steward's slightly later portraits; these exhibit a more sophisticated technique. This substantial change of style over a short period of time in itself does not discount the possibility that Steward was the maker of both types, because rapid progress is not unheard of in the careers of naive painters. One of Steward's friends, the Reverend James Cogswell, recorded in 1790 that the artist "improves in ye art of painting," although he gave no evidence of specific training the artist had. Around 1791 or 1792, but almost certainly not before, Steward would have crossed paths with the important Connecticut portraitist Ralph Earl. In 1792 he may have taken some lessons from John Trumbull, whose work he later would often copy. These influences therefore could have greatly transformed Steward's style between 1789 and 1793. He seems to have been a highly adaptable and flexible artist. Throughout his career his approach varied, almost chameleonlike, depending upon his subject, the purpose of the portrait undertaken, and which artist he may have been copying or emulating.
It has also been suggested that the painter of the Denison group might be Captain Elisha Denison, since the portrait of his son shows the young boy holding a card which prominently displays his father's name. Because the sitters are all from the same family, this possibility cannot be discounted.
Black, Mary and Jean Lipman. American Folk Painting. New York, 1966.
Harlow, Thompson R. "The Life and Trials of Joseph Seward." Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 46 (October 1981): full issue.
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: 81-83.