Auction is a picture of history

Estate includes portraits by a Peale, but which Peale?

July 15, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Scene: An auction house in Towson. Richard Hall, an appraiser at Alex Cooper, is giving a preview of the estate of Anne Carey Boucher, a portrait painter.

Boucher, who died a year ago, left 18th century French pieces and rare garden seats and a rosewood table, Regency style, from about 1810 that feels more like a Baltimore-made piece than an import. It's not as stylized as ones made in England then, which might be worth $1,000. Made in Baltimore, though, it could bring $1,500.

"People want to buy their own history," Hall says.

The auction house is filled with history. This week, it is furniture and art from 15 estates and 100 family attics. Some of those pieces will be on public display today in advance of Alex Cooper's big summer auction Sunday.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section on Thursday gave an incorrect phone number for Alex Cooper Auctioneers. The correct number is 410-828-4838.
The Sun regrets the errors.

But none of the items is as significant as the paintings Alex Cooper is showcasing from Boucher's estate: two early American portraits. Hall crosses the crowded room of household goods to describe these last treasures Anne Carey Boucher kept with her when she moved from her country home into an apartment.

The first is a portrait of Elisha Hall painted circa 1780, a classic of that time featuring a letter on his desk identifying him as a Fredericksburg, Va., doctor. The second is of his wife, Caroliana Carter Hall, and appears to be painted later in the American naive style.

The Halls are Anne Boucher's ancestors, and her family thought their portraits might be the work of the great American painter and Eastern Shore native Charles Willson Peale.

Experts have gone back and forth about the pair of Hall paintings. Alex Cooper and Sotheby's first thought they might be the work of different painters, one by Peale and the other by his nephew, Charles Peale Polk. Neither painting is signed, as was often the case.

"In those days, it wasn't about the art, it was about the sitter," the appraiser says.

The paintings hang near a carved wood and rattan plant stand, French, in the Louis XVI style, about 1770-1780, and a demi-lune table, whose intricately carved leafy inlay makes it obviously Dutch to the auction house. Mrs. Boucher's two "pate-sur-pate" pots - barrel-shaped garden seats painted Chinese blue with a design of white birds and flowers - are rare 19th century and pretty enough to bring $2,000 if they weren't cracked. She has a settee, pretty beaten up now, in the Louis XV style but Italian-made.

Also, a 19th century neo-classical writing table. Mrs. Boucher liked to paint the tops of her tables - maybe because they were scratched - and this one is black.

The tour is winding down when Alex Cooper fine arts expert Raab Christhilf summons his colleague. Christhilf, who visited the paintings in Mrs. Boucher's apartment to assess them, is sitting in a glass office holding a letter and talking on the phone.

"Come here," he says, "I have some really exciting news."

A clue

On his desk is a thick book of Peale paintings. It is open to portraits of Dr. Benjamin Rush, patriot and notable Philadelphia doctor, and his wife, painted respectively in 1783 and 1776.

Dr. Rush is wearing the same embroidered vest as Dr. Hall, and Mrs. Rush is holding a mandolin, just like Mrs. Hall. The couples have the same props!

In his hand, Christhilf holds a copy of a letter dated 1790. It is from the doctor in the known Peale painting to the doctor in the painting to be auctioned.

"My dear kinsman," it begins. It will be another day before Christhilf learns the men were first cousins. But already he is speculating: Gentry relatives shared styles of window treatments and passed around crop seeds, he notes. When one installed an orangery, they all installed orangeries. Could these families have hired the same portrait artist?

The style was Peale, certainly, and Hall was a Virginian from the Tidewater region where Peale lived and worked. They each have the very white, pasty skin common to the master, Charles Willson Peale, famed for his portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. They have the same pinched, linear faces, sharply painted.

But there were 20 Peales who painted portraits.

And the Halls are not included in the definitive Charles Willson Peale catalog on the appraiser's desk.

Now, the Boucher family representative on the phone with Christhilf has new leads - documents in Boucher's apartment that include correspondence 20 years ago with a curator of a Polk exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In the letter, the curator said Dr. Hall's portrait looks like an early Polk work, but she wanted to see it in person.

"You wouldn't believe this," Christhilf is saying. "I think she looks more like a Polk than he does." The new evidence is persuasive, but he is puzzled.

"We are leaning to thinking this is a pair by Polk," he says, "but both are different styles."

Later this day, two women will view the paintings and offer the opinion that Dr. Hall, at least, appears to be an early Polk.

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