American, active 1730 / 1745
Generally untrained and itinerant, limners were a class of artists who helped shape the image of colonial Americans, securing the social status of their middle-class sitters in portraits that convey an air of refinement. “The Gansevoort Limner” designates an unidentified artist who was active in the US between 1730 and 1745 (possibly Pieter Vanderlyn) and depicted, among others, the Gansevoorts, a prominent Dutch American family. Typically set within domestic interiors, this artist’s flatly painted, three-quarter-length likenesses represent his prospering sitters with a naturalism that is loosely indebted to seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture.
Miss Van Alen was a favorite among enthusiasts of American folk art in the 1930s and 1940s. After its discovery in Kinderhook, New York, an important early Dutch settlement in the Hudson Valley, the portrait was included in the American Ancestors show at the Downtown Gallery in New York (1933). It also appeared in Three Centuries of American Art, organized by MoMA for the Jeu de Paume, Paris, in 1938, and in Sidney Janis’s American Primitive Painting of Four Centuries exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1943. A reproduction hung prominently in Charles Sheeler’s home in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
The portrait’s appeal seems to have derived both from the apparent earnestness of its simplified composition and from the mismatch between the charmingly stilted execution and the social aspirations of the sitter. She holds a full-blown rose blossom in one hand and touches her red belt with the other, while meeting the viewer’s eye with a steady gaze and lips curved ever so slightly into a smile. Though there is almost no suggestion of depth or volume, the artist has endeavored to create convincing illusions in the effects of gravity on the folds and fall of her sleeves as well as the gossamer lace circling her forearms and neckline.
Black, Mary C. “The Gansevoort Limner.” In Jean Lipman and Tom Armstrong, eds. American Folk Painters of Three Centuries, 41–45. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1980.
Chotner, Deborah, et al. American Naïve Paintings, 142–143. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1992.