Not long after we completed our work on Alban Jasper Conant with the Portrait of Woman of Strong Character, an art collector asked me to determine if a portrait of two children could be the lost painting, “Group, Two Young Girls,” 1839/40, by George Caleb Bingham, referenced in E. Maurice Bloch (#103). I was told the portrait is currently located in Nebraska, which made George Caleb Bingham within the realm of possibility since many portraits by Missouri artists migrate to Nebraska. When I first looked at the image, I did not think the artist was Bingham nor that the work was painted in 1839/1840. The “look” and paint colors seemed different than Bingham and later than the 1840s. But, of course I needed to perform due diligence before making a judgment.
Comparing the children in the portrait with children in known Bingham portraits throughout his career (below), Bingham’s images of children fit well together throughout the decades. The faces of the children in the double portrait did not.
The potential buyer of the double portrait noted that the painting was well-done. Could I identify the correct artist? First I looked at the most famous portrait artist of the mid-19th century, Thomas Sully (1783-1872). He was definitely not a match. Then returning to the wise guideline of looking for horses rather than zebras, I compared the portrait with works by Missouri artists. I quickly ruled out Morrison Hughes, George Calder Eichbaum, and Manuel Joachim de Franca. To my surprise, the artist who fit best was Alban Jasper Conant. Even without color, the one available image of children by Conant in black and white showed similar details such as nostrils, eyebrows, and especially ears. The well-modeled ears were especially telling, though Conant attached well-painted ears to the head unconvincingly. They almost look as though they are pasted on.
Conant arrived in Missouri from the east coast by 1856. He spent time in Illinois and Washington, DC during the Civil War. He left Missouri before 1880. If Conant is the artist, he probably painted the portrait in the mid- to late- 1860s or the 1870s. Nice portrait. Not a Bingham.
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