Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Puritan Art Mystery

There are questions surrounding a work of art to which I have been unable to ascertain the answers. Perhaps a kind reader will be able to help.

The questions pertain to a portrait said to be that of English-American Puritan John Davenport (1597-1670), who co-founded New Haven, Connecticut. Davenport is a link in the chain between Matthew Poole, who began a project to record "illustrious providences," and Increase Mather, who published in 1684 his own "Remarkable Providences," having been given Poole's notes by Davenport.

The portrait shown in the Wikipedia entry for John Davenport is held at the Yale University Art Gallery (and is viewable online here). The curators there have not responded to my inquiry. At one time the subject of this painting was said to be one Francis Higginson (d. 1630), according to The Diary of William Bentley, Vol. 3, p. 52. It was in the 20th century, according to what I have read, that the painting was identified as that of John Davenport.

However, the painting also bears a strong resemblance to one found in Samuel Eliot Morrison, Builders of the Bay Colony (1930), p. 122, which Morrison identifies as representing John Wheelwright (1592-1679). Wheelwright's picture (the same as that found in Morrison's book) may be viewed here. Wheelwright was banished from the Massachusetts colony in November 1637, along with his sister-in-law Anne Hutchinson.

The artist of the work is unknown; for shorthand, he is referred to by art students and scholars as the "Davenport Limner." The date of the work is thought to be around 1670, but that too is unknown.

Aside from the question of the proper identity of the subject of this portrait, whether Davenport or Wheelwright, a further art history wrinkle comes into play with a statement found in Davenport's Wikipedia entry:

While in Holland, it is believed that he was the model for several portraits by Rembrandt, which are now thought to be self portraits of Rembrandt.

Elsewhere, another source says:

It is a possibility that many of the so-called "self portraits" that Rembrandt did of himself, were in fact portraits of Davenport since Rembrandt was sometimes known to associate with those who ministered to the destitute, and known pictures of John Davenport bear a striking resemblance to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.[citation needed] The portrait that accompanies this article purports to have been done during Davenport's lifetime, although it is dated to 1670 when he died.

Is this mere speculation, or is there some substantive reason to give credence to this line of thought? I am unable to say at this point in time, but the possibility is intriguing.

As an amateur art sleuth, I am left with the following questions:

1. Is the painting held at Yale University's Art Center accurately said to be that of John Davenport, or might it be that of John Wheelwright?

2. Is it possible that some of Rembrandt's famous self-portraits might be, in fact, portraits of John Davenport?

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