By Carly Benedict
This week’s object is an intriguing little portrait of New York congressman Andrew McCord. Not much is known about this specific piece, but it still tells us a lot about artistic practices and tastes in the early years of America’s history. It’s also extremely interesting too look at and study visually as well!
What we do know is that this portrait was created using etched gold leaf under glass with a black paper board as the background. We also know who made this piece, as the name A.B. Doolittle is signed on a bottom border. McCord’s name is written under the portrait and next to it is written the year 1778. This is most likely not the year in which the portrait was made, seeing as Doolittle was active in his craft during the early 1800’s. More likely, this year is referencing a time in which McCord was active in his career, or perhaps this portrait is based off of another portrait created that year.
Andrew McCord is not very well known today, but he was very active in the New York government during the American Revolution and in the years after as well. He was a local man, born in the area that is now Stony Ford in the Wallkill Township of Orange County, New York. In 1775 he was a delegate to a convention in New Paltz that was held to choose men from the area to serve as delegates to the Second Provincial Congress of New York. During the Revolution, many colonies set up their own provincial congresses as a pro-American alternative to the more loyalist assemblies. New York’s first congress was assembled in April of 1775 and the second was assembled in December of the same year. In addition to helping decide who would represent the local area at the second congress, McCord also served as Quarterman, later Captain, of the Ulster County militia. He served many years in the state assembly after the Revolution and even served as speaker in 1807. His greatest achievement, however, was being elected as a Republican representative to the eighth United States congress from 1803 to 1805.
The portrait was made by A.B. Doolittle, who worked primarily in New Haven, Connecticut. It seems a little odd that a Connecticut artist would want to make a portrait of a New York politician, but not much is known about Doolittle himself, so his true intentions for this piece are unknown. From the little records that are available on Doolittle, we do know that first worked as a maker of profile portraits in Philadelphia in 1804 and later moved his shop to New Haven. He was known for being a miniaturist, profilist, engraver, etcher on glass, and jeweler. He may have been related in some way to Amos Doolittle, a successful engraver and metalsmith who also worked in New Haven, but we don’t know for certain.
A.B. Doolittle’s work in profile portraiture, etching, and engraving was very congruent with the artistic style and tastes at the time. In the early 1800’s, Americans were still feeling the effects of the Age of Enlightenment that occurred in the 1700’s. The Enlightenment was a time of rational thought, logic, structure, and natural science. Many thinkers of the Enlightenment were inspired by the philosophical, political, and artistic ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as they too followed order and logic that the thinkers so desired.
Profile portraiture became popular during this time and continued being used during the early 1800’s because it reflected these principals. The profile emulates a sense of austereness and restraint. It is a visual representation that is certainly rational and easy to understand. It isn’t overshadowed by superfluous artistic decoration. Profile portraits were also often used on the coinage of ancient Greece and Rome, which might be another reason why artists during the Enlightenment favored this form. This profile portrait of Andrew McCord certainly depicts him as being a composed and stoic politician, which was the most favored depiction during this time.
The materials and process that A.B. Doolittle used to create this portrait are an interesting departure from the typical painted portraits of the same time. Gilding and etching in gold leaf on glass is a precarious endeavor, but Doolittle seemed to have done this type of work a lot, becoming quite skilled. First the extremely delicate gold leaf must be carefully adhered to the class using a mixture of gelatin dissolved in water. When dry, the design can be etched into the gold leaf in reverse. Sometimes a background is put behind the gold leaf to protect and make it easier to see on the other side of the glass when it is displayed. Doolittle worked with a small piece of gold leaf-less than 5 inches by 3.5 inches-and expertly etched the extremely fine details of McCord’s hair, face, and clothing to create the portrait. What we’re left with is a tiny yet striking and effective portrait of the politician. The shimmery gold contrasts drastically with the black background, creating an effervescent image that resonates in the eyes of the viewer.
This fascinating portrait is small and enigmatic, yet it allows us to infer a lot of information about the subject, the artist’s possible intentions, and how it fits into the artistic culture of early 1800’s America. It also makes a large visual impact despite its small stature. It is a fitting symbol of McCord’s legacy that also reflects the enlightenment ideals that shaped the governmental and social sphere in which he lived and worked
“A.B. Doolittle (XIX).” Artprice.com. Groupe serveur. Web. 19 Sep 2016.
Avery, Kevin J. “Late Eighteenth-Century American Drawings.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Web. 19 Sep 2016.
“McCord, Andrew, (ca. 1754-1808).” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. History, Art & Archives. Web. 19 Sep 2016.
“Techniques in Glass Gilding.” Goldreverre. Australia: Goldreverre. Web. 19 Sep 2016.