Monday, February 18, 2013

Fruitlands exhibit of " New England Portraits"

Three unidentified children
The girl on the right has hair parted in the middle, and a flower.
The boy on the left has short skirts, side parted hair, and a riding crop.
The baby is unknown.

The Fruitlands Museum has over 200 early 19th century primitive portraits in storage.  This exhibit has about 80 of the portraits on exhibit for the first time.  The founder of the Fruitlands Museum, Clara Endicott Sears (1863 - 1960), would purchase them from all over New England for her collection.  Most of them were done by itinerant painters, and are unlabeled, unidentified, and the artist is unknown.  Others have fascinating stories and labels.  It is fun to wander through this exhibit and wonder if some of the faces might be your own ancestors!

The art gallery at Fruitlands Museum

Itinerant painters would wander New England and charge five or ten dollars for a portrait.  They were mostly uneducated, so the portraits are simple, lacking perspective or detail.  The subjects are not wealthy or famous, but ordinary people.  Sometimes the artist would paint an object in the hands of the subject or in the background to depict their profession, such as a ship for a sea captain, or sheet music for a musician.  You can tell if children are boys or girls by the objects they hold, such as flowers for girls, and sports equipment or balls for boys.

The museum label read "Portrait of a Lady of Boston"
but the label on the frame reads "Lady with a Great Cap"! 

This is the only family portrait in the collection

The museum label reads "Lady of Essex County"
and the frame label reads "Portrait of an Old Lady Knitting,
Essex County, Mass."
*Welcome knitters from
I understand this painting has been under discussion.
Please leave a comment below about the
way this woman is holding her knitting needles!*
-click on the painting to enlarge-
This portrait display will continue through March, during the winter hours of the Fruitlands Museum.  The museum will open for the summer on April 15th.  Admission to the exhibit is $5, and includes the use of the 210 acres of museum meadow and woodlands for walking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

These little boys are old enough to have been "breeched".
Yes, all three are little boys
"Sons of Edwin A. and Sarah R. Hill, 1853"
attributed to Sturtevant Hamblin circa 1854.
The child in the high chair is Edwin Lawton Hill,
he is holding fruit, not flowers, despite the pink dress!

Click here to see more photos of the Fruitlands Museum in winter:

Fruitlands Museum website

Fruitlands Museum
102 Prospect Hill Road
Harvard, Massachusetts 01451
(978) 456-3924 x235

Copyright 2013, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Hi! I came from Ravelry where the article is being discussed.

    The lady with the knitting is holding something done in the round on double pointed needles. However, there are only 3 needles shown, so she is not actively knitting in the picture. She would need one more needle to be knitting. My guess is that it is the sleeve for a small child's sweater.

  2. I think the "Old Lady Knitting" is holding her knitting in her lap so that her hands are still. It looks like she has been knitting possibly a strip of edging and is currently resting with her hands in her lap

  3. Remember that these were primitive artists. They were unschooled, and self taught. I think the artist has done a pretty good job on her hands considering he was a primitive artist, and must have grown up in a house full of knitters considering how carefully he painted her knitting. Most objects painted in the hands of subjects in this exhibit were very one dimensional and cartoonish (look at the fruit and flowers in some of the hands).

  4. It looks like my hands look working on socks or similar. But the above is correct--not enough needles for that! Also, it looks more like a piece of flat knitting.

  5. I think in real life there was one more needle, horizontal. In the painting it might be hidden behind her hands and sleeves. You can see there are stitches where her thumbs are, so there must be a needle there. If so, it would make perfect knitterly sense, and it would look exactly as I do when knitting the cuffs of socks or gloves.

  6. It looks like she's knitting a tube on three double-pointed needles, and the fourth is hidden by her right arm. She's working on the bit between her index fingers; if you follow the line of the needle in her left hand that's where it ends up.

  7. also over from Rav. I love these paintings.

    I agree that one of her double pointed needles(dpn) is probably hidden behind her hands - you can see three of the four she would be using clearly, though. And her work is triangle shaped, so she's using a set of four dpns (not five - the work would be square then).

    What I love the most is that her working yarn makes those loops running down (to her knitting basket?) out of the frame. I think if the artist was careful enough to do that, he painted what he saw in her hands.

    Can you imagine for a knitter, though, how frustrating it must have been to be sitting there, holding your knitting but unable to actually knit on it because you had to hold your pose? Hopefully the artist only made her sit that still when he was painting her hands!

    Great exhibit.

  8. One of my ancestors had her portrait done in this style, Martha Cary (1686-1738) and also found her daughters portrait, Mary Smith.

    But then I found another portrait that looks similar to the 1st, but her head is turned the other direction and no fruit.