Russell, Moses B - portrait of a man

Fortunate purchases do eventuate from time to time and this miniature portrait was a lucky acquisition at public auction. It is not signed on the front but is signed on the reverse. The cataloguer at the auction house who sold it, described it as being signed "M B Rupere, Boston, 1844".

However, the cataloguer had misread the signature, as it is actually signed "Painted by M B Russell, Boston, 1844" and also has the word "Miniature" written on the reverse. This is the signature of Moses B Russell (1810-1884), who along with his wife Mrs Moses B Russell (Clarissa Peters Russell) are two of the more famous American miniature painters of the 19C.

The cataloguer was confused by the way Russell wrote his name in this instance. In the 18C and 19C, it was common for a double "ss" to be written "fs" as in this case, and so it was misread by the cataloguer.

It is interesting to compare Russell's signature here, with another miniature in the collection which was acquired earlier this year and signed "Painted by M B Russell, Boston, 1835 (or 1836)". See Russell, Moses B - portrait of a young lady The words "Painted by" are obviously by the same hand and elements of M B Russell also match, as does the word Boston.

There is an excellent article about Moses B Russell by Randall L Holton and Charles A Gilday in "The Magazine Antiques" for November 2002. Unfortunately, the article does not illustrate any of the signatures used on the reverse of Russell's miniatures, but several examples of his signature as they appear on the front of his miniatures can be seen in the article.

Those examples, taken with the two examples in this collection, one of which has an inscribed/scratched signature on the front, show that his method of signing did vary considerably over time. Sometimes he also added an instruction to leave the backing paper on and other times, as here, he included the word miniature for some unknown reason. It is a little intriguing that his hand writing was so poor, when he obviously had such artistic skill.

Russell also varied his painting style considerably over time. This miniature is different to the miniature of a young girl in the collection painted in 1835, which has a darker background, but the background is very similar to several examples illustrated in "The Magazine Antiques" article, especially the portraits of Lieutenant Samuel Fales Hazard painted in 1841 and Reverend Edward Norris Kirk painted in the same year.

Considerable strength of character is evident with this sitter and the sitter is very well depicted As such, the miniature compares very favourably with his other portraits of male sitters. The strengthening of character associated with an adult man, is also evident in comparing the miniature with that of the girl in this collection.

The miniatures illustrated in The Magazine Antiques article indicate that the quality of Russell's miniatures varied considerably. Those of adults were usually well painted, but sometimes there were lapses, such as with his portrait of Thomas Wise Short, dated 1842.

Russell had much more difficulty in painting young children and the five examples illustrated in The Magazine Antiques article, painted between 1829 and 1850 appear primitive by comparison. They also show he was unable to paint hands well, although the 1850 example is much better in this respect. Often the painting of hands is a good indication of an artist's overall level of skill. This variation of quality makes attribution of Russell's work difficult where a miniatures is unsigned or if the backing paper has been removed.

This collection is now fortunate in having two well signed and very competent examples of his work. There are other examples in the collection that may possibly be by Russell, but due to his variable quality, it is difficult to attribute the other examples with any confidence.

The sitter is unknown. 1279

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