Widely considered the most intellectual and technically sophisticated American artist of his generation, Washington Allston painted relatively few portraits—the stock-in-trade of most of his American peers—and is best known for moody, dramatic landscapes drawn from his imagination and for grand pictures devoted to lofty historical and literary themes. He limited his portraiture primarily to images of family and close friends, as evidenced by this early likeness of his half-brother, Ebenezer “Eben” Flagg (1795–1837), of Charleston, South Carolina. Allston painted this previously unlocated portrait during an extended visit to his family 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 composition, the brooding silhouettes of dark, craggy trees reveal Allston’s interest in the artistic and literary sublime, while the sitter’s erect pose and the swag of drapery demonstrate his reliance on neoclassical devices. He united these contrasting elements through delicate brushwork, soft contours, and the use of rosy tones in both the sky and face. Allston’s distinctive melding of neoclassical and romantic modes would exert a formative influence on the history of American art.
From the 2019 exhibition American Art, Colonial to Modern, curated by Barbara J. MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art
American Art, Colonial to Modern, Israel Sack Gallery and Rush Family Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, January 26-July 21, 2019.
Israel Sack Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, February 4, 2014.
Lent by William Merrill Chester, Jr. to the Milwaukee Art Museum, probably in the 1960s.
MacBeth Gallery, New York; sold to Alice Greenwood Chapman (1853–1935), Milwaukee, Wisconsin (great aunt of donor William Merrill Chester, Jr.), early 1900s; bequeathed to William Merrill Chester, Jr., 1935 (held for him by his grandmother, [Alice Greenwood Chapman’s sister], Laura Chapman Miller [1866–1960], Milwaukee, until he married and had a house of his own); William Merrill Chester Jr. took physical possession of the painting following his 1949 marriage to Priscilla Penfield; given to present collection, 2013.
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