Modest Folk: Watercolor Portraits on Paper
by Judy Penz Sheluk
Jul 26, 2008 | 2877 views | 0 0 comments | 39 39 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Jacob Maentel (1763-1863): Portrait of a Hatter, 15” x 12”, 1825-30. Courtesy of Pook & Pook. This unusual oversized Pennsylvania watercolor and ink on paper portrait of hatter John Mays of Schaefferstown, Lebanon County, was purchased at Pook & Pook’s May 13, 2006 Auction by David Wheatcroft for a record price (for a single figure Maentel at auction) of $469,000. Wheatcroft told us, “This portrait of John Mays is an exceptional display of Mantel’s compositional prowess. The shelves of top hats are both a direct reference is Mr. Mays’ livelihood as well as an engaging visual background. The hats are robustly drawn and each is distinctive with subtle movement, accomplished by tonal changes thoughout. The Hatter stands poised, handsome and ready for business. It’s folk art at its most compelling.” Large full-length watercolor portraits by Jacob Maentel always bring a premium, and this one had the added benefit of being an occupational study. The only other known large occupational Maentel resides at the American Folk Art Museum. That portrait depicts Dr. Christian Bucher, also of Schaefferstown. For many years, Bucher was thought to be an apothecary or a pharmacist. According to the AFAM, recent research has identified Dr. Bucher as a physician.
“Buy the best you can afford and what makes your heart goes crazy. Remember, if it isn’t good now – it won’t get any better 10 years from now.”

That’s the advice of Barbara Pollack, a 40-year veteran of dealing and collecting small watercolor portraits on paper. Modest these portraits may be, but if they were assessed in dollars per square inch, they’d be among the most highly valued paintings in today’s market. They were popular for a short period early in the nineteenth century, in those years before 1839, when the daguerreotype sounded the death knell for the art of the “likeness” of America’s middle classes.

The itinerant artists who painted these highly collectible portraits had traveled throughout the Northeast, some venturing as far south as Virginia, and others into upper New York State. Their paintings, so in demand in the 1820s and 1830s, suddenly fell out of favor as the new “art” of photography swept across the nation. They remained in the shadows until the 1970s when they began once again to garner major public attention.

“In 1974, the Art Institute of Chicago presented Three New England Watercolor Painters, a traveling exhibition organized and catalogue written by Esther Sparks, the curator of Prints and Drawings, in collaboration with pioneering collectors Gail and Norbert Savage,” Ron Bourgeault, of Northeast Auctions, told us. “The painters were Joseph H. Davis, (also known as “Left handed Davis” because he inscribed one of his paintings “left/hand painter”), J.A. Davis, and J. Evans. Another key impact on the market was a series of auctions at Sotheby’s, which offered a number of masterpiece watercolors from the collection of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.” According to longtime dealer David Schorsch, the 1970s was a great time to start a collection. “The preeminent collector at that time was Ralph Esmarian,” he said “and I believe the most expensive portrait he purchased was about $40,000, a full length Ruth and Samuel Shute, of a boy. Today such an image would conservatively bring a half million dollars.”

That’s not to say that all watercolors have escalated in quite the same way. Condition, now a critical factor, was less important in those early days of collecting, and much was still to be learned about the artists. In a hot market that shows no signs of cooling, however, how does someone who wants just one fine piece decide what’s good – and what’s not so good? What makes one nineteenth-century watercolor on paper worth $2,000 and another worth $200,000?

To answer the question, we interviewed some experts, selected some recent auction highlights, and put together this gallery of the good and the great.

Author’s Note: Experts interviewed included Martha Hamilton, Skinner, Inc.; Ron Bourgeault, Northeast Auctions; Ron Pook, Pook & Pook; and the dealers Patrick Bell, David Schorsch, David Wheatcroft, and Barbara Pollack. All prices include buyer’s premium.

People & Places

American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York NY 10019 (212) 265-1040,

New York State Historical Association, The Farmers’ Museum, P.O. Box 800, Cooperstown, NY 13326 (607) 547-1400,

The Rufus Porter Museum, PO Box 544, Bridgeton, ME 04009 (207) 647-2828,

Olde Hope Antiques, Inc., Patrick Bell, P.O. Box 718, New Hope, PA 18938 (215) 297-0200,

David Wheatcroft Antiques, David Wheatcroft, 26 West Main Street, Westborough, Massachusetts 01581 (508) 366-1723,

David Schorsch & Eileen Smiles, David Schorsch, 358 Main Street South, Woodbury, CT 06798 (203) 263-3131,

Frank & Barbara Pollack American Antiques & Art, Barbara Pollack, 1214 Green Bay Road, Highland Park, Illinois 60035 (847) 433-2213.
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