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Recent Acquisitions: Washington Allston, Eben Flagg, about 1801

Washington Allston, Eben Flagg, about 1801, oil on canvas. Gift of Priscilla P. and William M. Chester Jr.; 2013.25

Washington Allston, Eben Flagg, about 1801, oil on canvas. Gift of Priscilla P. and William M. Chester Jr.; 2013.25.

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2013
Barbara J. Macadam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art 

It is not often that a work previously unknown to scholars and painted by a major figure in American art emerges from a private collection and is donated to a museum. Such is the happy case with this engaging portrait of young Ebenezer “Eben” Flagg (1795–1837), half-brother to the artist, Washington Allston (1779–1843) (a 1984 family genealogy noted that such a portrait was said to have existed, though it was then unlocated). Allston is widely considered the most intellectual and technically sophisticated American artist of his generation. He painted relatively few portraits—the stock and trade of most of his American peers—and is best known for moody, dramatic landscapes drawn from his imagination and grand pictures devoted to lofty historical, literary, and Biblical themes. He limited his portraiture primarily to images of family and close friends, as evidenced by this early work, which Allston painted during an extended visit with his family in Charleston, South Carolina, from late 1800 to spring 1801—a period that fell between his 1800 graduation from Harvard and his departure from Charleston for formal art study abroad.

In this likeness Allston demonstrates his emerging romanticism but also his continued reliance on such neoclassical conventions as the sitter’s erect pose and the swag of drapery that partially obscures the generalized landscape outside the window. Allston’s suffused, atmospheric treatment of the scene and the brooding silhouettes of dark, craggy trees recalls the mysterious landscapes with banditti that he painted during his Harvard years, when his youthful imagination gravitated toward the artistic and literary sublime. In the portrait, the sky’s rosy glow picks up on the warm lips and blushed cheeks of the sitter, who was six at the time and wears the open, ruffled collar that was standard attire for young boys during this era. Allston’s delicate, muted handling in this portrait foretells his mature portrait style, which is perhaps best exemplified in his exceptional 1805 self-portrait (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Although Allston’s modeling is more conventionalized in the Eben Flagg portrait, it nonetheless reveals a blend of neoclassicism and romanticism that would exert a formative influence on the history of American art.

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