The Beardsley Limner
The Beardsley Limner was an itinerant artist who worked along the old Boston Post Road, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, from about 1785 to 1805. He executed some of the most striking naive portraits in New England, and was given the name The Beardsley Limner based on his handsome paintings of Elizabeth and Hezekiah Beardsley, c. 1785-1790.
Recently it has been argued that The Beardsley Limner and a Connecticut pastelist, Sarah Perkins, were one and the same. While some stylistic similarities exist between the two, there are sufficient differences to raise questions about this identification. To date no documentation of The Beardsley Limner's identity has been found in any of the sitters' records.
The Conant Limner
Approximately eleven portraits can be attributed to this unidentified painter. His identification as The Conant Limner is derived from the last name of four sitters who constitute the largest family group by his hand. The Conants lived in Sterling, Massachusetts, where several of this limner's works remain. Although likenesses by this hand have turned up in other regions of Massachusetts, all may have originated in the vicinity of Sterling, in Worcester County.
The Conant Limner is not known to have dated any works. From the sitters' attire, consistent in style, it appears that the portraits were painted within a limited span of years. The National Gallery likeness of Sophia Burpee Conant, datable to about 1813 on the basis of her biography, forms a reference point for dating the other portraits and the period in which the artist was active.
Schematic shadows, such as those cast by lace collars, and simplification of form suggest that the artist, in addition to portraiture, perhaps painted signs or other decorative pieces. The artist has sometimes been referred to as "The Merrimac Limner," based on the single example in a private collection said to have been acquired in the northern part of the state in Ipswich. The existence of the greater number of works from the central region of the state, however, suggests that the designation Merrimac Limner is inappropriate and may be misleading.
The Denison Limner
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.
The Gansevoort Limner
The designation "Gansevoort Limner" was given to the unknown painter of a stylistically coherent group of portraits depicting members of the Gansevoort family. The majority of his sitters were children, and several of his portraits are inscribed in either Dutch or Latin.
Mary Black has identified The Gansevoort Limner as Pieter Vanderlyn, which some scholars accept. No signed portraits by Vanderlyn exist, however, and over the years controversy has continued over Vanderlyn's identity and oeuvre. Local tradition originally ascribed a number of The Gansevoort Limner portraits to Vanderlyn; descendants of the subjects believed him to be the creator of their family portraits, and the Kingston, New York, Senate House Historical Site owns several portraits that have been recorded as Vanderlyn's work. Confusion arose with the publication of articles ascribing a completely different series of works to Vanderlyn's hand. A group of portraits are now given to The Schuyler or Aetatis Suae Limner. Additional attributions were also made, all based on a "key picture," the portrait of Mrs. Petrus Vas, which John Vanderlyn, Pieter's grandson, reportedly represented to his biographer as a work by Pieter. However, these attributions are not documented and rest on uncertain, oral tradition.
Black first isolated a group of eighteen portraits by an artist identified only as The Gansevoort Limner. Later she published her conclusion that The Gansevoort Limner was Pieter Vanderlyn, based on the fact that a group of Kingston portraits by The Gansevoort Limner (including several from the Kingston Senate House Historical Site) were originally attributed by local tradition to Vanderlyn. She discovered a manuscript by Vanderlyn in handwriting that appeared to match seven of the eight inscriptions appearing on Gansevoort Limner paintings. This Kingston group and the National Gallery's portraits form a coherent stylistic group and are clearly by the same hand. Black disputed the attributions of the portrait of Mrs. Petrus Vas to Vanderlyn. Another family tradition held that a companion portrait of Dominie Petrus Vas was lost in the 1777 Kingston fire. Black speculated that the lost male portrait was the one painted by Vanderlyn, rather than the female one, engendering the string of mistaken attributions that followed. Black's discovery about Vanderlyn's signature is intriguing, but some scholars dispute the validity of attributions based on matching scripts, arguing that eighteenth-century handwriting was of a standard style.
Until further evidence comes to light, it cannot be said with complete certainty that The Gansevoort Limner is Pieter Vanderlyn. If this identification is correct, The Gansevoort Limner was born in Holland about 1687, coming to New York from Curaçao around 1718. He traveled frequently between Albany and Kingston until 1777, then moved to Shawangunk, New York. He died there in 1778.