In preparation for the exhibition, A Usable Past: American Folk Art at the Colby Museum, Museum staff, faculty, and students delved into the Museum’s inaugural American Heritage Collection given by Ellerton and Edith Jetté. The compiled discovers have been published in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue. In this excerpt, Katz Curator Diana Tuite examines a pair of pastels that she has attributed to the remarkable Ruth Henshaw Bascom.
Beginning in 1789, Henshaw kept a diary that she maintained for the rest of her life. Now in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, this text documents quotidian life in Federalist New England, but also elucidates the ways a woman negotiated professional identities within networks of family and community. According to her journal, Henshaw was producing cut-paper silhouette portraits several years before her first marriage in 1804. But within a few years she abandoned the activity, concentrating instead on weaving, sewing clothing, and making bonnets: “rose early & sat up late to work for others, because, we have no millner [sic] in town.”[ii]
When she returned to portraiture over a decade later, Bascom applied the aesthetic and entrepreneurial lessons learned in those sartorial trades. During her second marriage to the Reverend Ezekiel Bascom, her occasional amateur activity became a prolific practice for which she often accepted compensation. By 1828, she was turning out as many as eighty portraits per year. The surviving volumes of Bascom’s diary accumulate references to over 1,100 likenesses, and the more than two hundred extant portraits demonstrate her sensitivity to nuances of physiognomy and dress and her facility with a range of materials.[iii] While many of her early silhouettes incorporated cut paper or collaged foil, she eventually abandoned these techniques for pencil and “drawing with crayon,” as she called her use of pastel.
Approaching life-size, Bascom’s bust portraits are remarkable for their illustrative ambitions: the individuation of each subject’s features, achieved through a command of line and tone, and the profuse elaboration of their costume. A drawing in the collections of Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts, exemplifies Bascom’s accomplishment as a colorist and showcases her skill in mimicking the diaphanous patterns of lace. In these more restrained pastels, Bascom certainly portrays sisters, perhaps even twins, judging from the strength of their resemblance and the compositional mirroring. Yet she subtly distinguishes them, accentuating the more juvenile curvature of one girl’s cheek (fig. 3) and positioning the other slightly higher on the sheet of paper. In both cases, she reinforces the contour of the face to make it appear more three-dimensional. While the girls’ names remain to be determined, the drawings are consistent with Bascom’s mid-career style. Her diary indicates that she painted Rebecca and Lydia Lovejoy of Nelson, New Hampshire, in October 1830, and the “twin sisters Woodcock” in July 1837.
[i] I would like to express my gratitude to the Alden Kindred of America, and, in particular, to Bonnie Chandler Conant, for research assistance. The late Lois S. Avigad first hypothesized that these portraits were by Bascom in a 1984 letter to Edith and Ellerton Jetté now in the Museum object files. In this correspondence, Avigad also questioned the alleged identity of the subjects.
[ii] This entry dates to May 30, 1810. Quoted in Mary Eileen Fouratt, “Ruth Henshaw Bascom, Itinerant Portraitist,” Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife 9 (1986): 193.
[iii] According to Fouratt, the 1848 inventory of Bascom’s estate does not include a physiognotrace, an instrument designed to trace a profile, nor do any of her diary entries indicate that she employed the device. See ibid., 197.