Virtually nothing is known about Thomas Skynner, although a significant body of work is now associated with his name. The attribution to Skynner of two pairs of portraits at the National Gallery (John Stone, 1953.5.55; Eliza Welch Stone, 1953.5.56; Portrait of a Man, 1967.20.4; Portrait of a Woman, 1967.20.5) was made on the basis of stylistic similarity to another pair of portraits depicting Mr. and Mrs. Moses Pike of New Hampshire (present location unknown), that are inscribed on the reverse, T. Skynner, Painter and dated 17 September 1846. More recent documentation of another pair of portraits, those of Jeremiah and Mary Eighmie, has established the artist's full name. They are signed on their backs by Thomas Skynner and dated 14 June 1847. A fifth pair of oils, depicting Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Conklin is, like those in the National Gallery, neither signed nor dated.
All five pairs of portraits are by the same hand. In every pair the husband and wife are similarly posed and turned slightly inward toward each other, indicating that they were meant to be hung with the man on the left and the woman on the right. In addition to a similarity of pose and format, the portraits share an unusual treatment of anatomical features, and a final link is the treatment of the costumes.
Besides the oil portraits, at least fifteen watercolor miniatures--including the National Gallery's J. W. Lester (1953.5.123) and Elonor Lester (1953.5.124)--have been attributed to Skynner on the basis of four signed examples: his earliest signed work, Mr. S. [or L.] H. King, 1840, and three portraits of members of the Willson family, 1843. Portraits of sisters Delia and Dianna Grub of Rockingham, Virginia, dated 1852, are Skynner's latest signed works.
The handwriting of the inscriptions on the watercolors, which include full signatures and dates, matches that on the two inscribed pairs of oils. Both the signed and unsigned miniatures share with the full-size canvases the style and treatment of costumes, chair types, and dotted eyelashes. When hands are included, they are similar to those in the oil portraits. Several of the watercolors are "framed" in scalloped-edged ovals and the sitters placed against plain backgrounds. Unlike the oils, however, most of the subjects' faces in the watercolors are depicted in profile, many with their torsos turned slightly toward the viewer. The watercolors generally have cruder draftsmanship and handling than the oils; this, combined with the 1840 and 1843 dates of the signed examples, may suggest that Skynner began his career working in watercolor, later turning to the use of oil.
Genealogical records and local directories for the places where Thomas Skynner painted have yielded no trace of the artist. The varied geographical origins of his sitters suggest, however, that Skynner was an itinerant, working in Groton, New Hampshire in September of 1846; possibly the Buffalo area of upstate New York in June of 1847; and elsewhere in New York. Based on the existence of the watercolors of the Grub sisters, Skynner appears to have traveled to Virginia in 1852. The National Gallery's two portraits of unidentified sitters are the only oil portraits of totally unknown origin.
The location of Skynner's travels, combined with the unusual spelling of his name, suggest that the artist may have been an itinerant of Canadian birth. The only Skynners with the spelling of "y" rather than "i" recorded in early nineteenth-century American genealogies are Canadian. Perhaps Skynner either emigrated or traveled across the border from Canada to paint in New York State and northern New England, an itinerant pattern not uncommon in the nineteenth century. Skynner is, however, originally an English name, and it is possible, if the artist was American, that he simply kept the older spelling of his name. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Hollander, Stacy. "Discovering Thomas Skynner." The Clarion 15 (Summer 1990): 46.
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: 350-354.