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Miniature Portrait of Burr Powell (1768-1838)

ca. 1805
Origin: America, Virginia, Loudon County
Sight: 3 3/8 x 3 1/4in. (8.6 x 8.3cm) and Framed (excluding wire hanger at top): 4 3/8 x 4 1/2in.
Reverse gilding and black paint on glass
Gift of Eric D. and Hollace S. W. Swanson
Acc. No. 1999.500.1,A&B
A bust-length profile portrait of a man facing right, executed in verre églomisé. Shading is done by cross-hatching through the gilding. The subject wears a striped waist- coat, solid color coat with an "M" notched collar and a row of buttons visible, a plain collar and bow-tied neck cloth. His hair is cropped fairly close and is somewhat dark; a sideburn grows down in front of his ear.

The 1/2-inch black-painted, scoop molded wood frame with a wire hanging ring at the top is original.
Label:Burr Powell was the son of Sarah Harrison Powell (1737-1812) and Leven Powell (1737-1810), the latter the founder of Middleburg, Virginia, and one of Loudon County's largest property owners. Son Burr did well, too: personal property tax lists reveal him to have been the town's wealthiest citizen in 1820 and 1830. He married Katherine Brooke (1770-1851) in 1792, and a home called "Chestnut Hill" was built for them just south of Middleburg in 1803. Burr served as a school commissioner and sherrif of the county and was elected to the General Assembly in 1804.

Charles Peale Polk's fame is based almost entirely on his oil-on-canvas portraits, while his verre-églomisé work is scarcely known. To execute the difficult latter technique, gold leaf was applied to the back of the glass, the subject's outline was engraved through it, and excess gold leaf was scraped away. Interior details were added by hatching and cross-hatching. Finally, the reverse of the glass was painted black to throw the design into relief.

Fragility contributes to the scarcity of verre-églomisé works. Some changes in Burr Powell's portrait are explained by a label on the back that states in part: "Reader, I am not now, as when I came out of the hands of the artist. Aunt [name illegible] thought she could make me look better, by the use of soap & hot water. In applying it she broke my head and broke my nose. My right temple suffered grievously in that experiment and my mouth and chinn [sic] did not entirely escape . . . . Oh, save me from my friends . . . ."
Provenance:Acquired by the Swansons (CWF's source) from an unidentified dealer at an unidentified antiques show in New York City "about ten years ago," i.e., about 1989.
Mark(s):A torn press-printed dealer label glued to the dust cover on the reverse reads: "T. W. NORMAN & CO./Art Dealers,/Pictures and Frames/[N. B. Remainder supplied by intact label on 1999.500.2] 44 Bromfield & 114 Eliot Sts./Factory 47 Field St./BOSTON".
Inscription(s):Scratched through the gilding of the subject's coat at lower left is "C P Polk Fecit".

On the dust cover, written in upright script, to one side, reads "Burr Powell/Born 1768 in Virginia/Died 1838."

A circular piece of paper bearing another inscription has been cut out and glued to the present dust covcr; this seems to be an earlier (if not original) dust cover. It is inscribed in brown ink in script in a different hand: "Reader/I am not now, as when I came out/of the hands of the artist. Aunt [Bilo . . .?]/thought she could make me look [better?], by the/[use?] of soap & hot water. in applying it she/broke my head and broke my nose. my/right temple suffered grievously in th[at?]/experiment and my mouth & chinn [sic]/did not entirely escape; but [Ja . . . dt?]/the best---who has had cares to explain/---oh save me from my friends [&?]/rue the injury [with?]/d . . . [final 2-3 words illegible]."